Earlier today, Kardashian posted a compassionate statement about West to her Instagram stories. “As many of you know, Kanye has bi-polar disorder,” Kardashian wrote in white text on a brown background (embedded below from a KKW fan account). “Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand.”
She added that while she’s remained silent thus far — in order to protect Kanye’s privacy, and that of the four children they share — she was opening up “because of the stigma and misconceptions about mental health.”
Kardashian continued by explaining that until West seeks out help for himself, she’s largely powerless; she can’t force him to get help. “People who are unaware or far removed from this experience can be judgmental,” she notes.
What Kardashian seems to allude to in her statement, though she doesn’t say it directly, is that she’s come under fire for how she’s handled West’s recent behaviour. She’s been criticised for staying silent, and not doing “enough” to help West. “Kim Kardashian is the worst wife of all time lmao,” one Twitter user wrote. “Letting this shit happen to kanye. get that man some help.” [sic] “Where the fuck is kim kardashian ???” asked another user. “Like your mans Kanye seriously needs help it’s not even funny at this point.” [sic]
Unfortunately, this attitude toward the families and friends of people with mental illness is not uncommon. But it’s incredibly damaging.
“The family of a person with mental illness is limited in what they can do while the person is not a danger to themselves or others,” says Karinn A Glover, MD, MPH, director of Adult Behavioural Health at Montefiore Medical Center and assistant professor of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who has no relationship to West or Kardashian. “The criteria for hospitalisation is if the person is a danger to themselves or others,” she explains. “Walking around waving a gun, or spending their family’s savings, or having unprotected sex with strangers in dangerous places — those are the things that’ll get you hospitalised. If you’re not doing anything so extreme, there’s no way to end up in the hospital, unless you develop the insight to say, ‘I’ve been acting erratically.’”
“People scratch their heads and say, ‘Why don’t you do this,' or, 'Why don’t you do that,’ for [the person with bipolar disorder] but the fact is [family and friends] can’t — there’s not much they can do, except for provide support for the person if they’re willing to take it,” says Roger McIntyre, PhD, CEO of AltMed Capital and director and co-chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). He emphasises that he has no relationship to West or Kardashian and can’t comment on them specifically.
As a result, friends and families often feel helpless and frustrated — especially if they’re also being told they’re “enabling” the person’s behaviour by, say, not forcing them into treatment or cutting them off.
“It’s a hard place to be,” acknowledges Dr Glover. She says friends and family of people with mental illness may want to remain available as a support system, so they’ll have a safe space to go when they’re ready for help. “It’s a fine line to walk between navigating this person’s ups and downs, and protecting their children from those ups and downs, and trying to maintain a relationship and keep an eye on them,” she says.
Publicly condemning a person with mental illness won’t encourage them to get help faster, she says.
In her Instagram story, Kardashian calls her husband “a brilliant but complicated person who on top of the pressure of being an artist and a black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother, and has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar disorder.”
Dr McIntyre agrees that the isolation and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has been damaging to people with mental illness. And Dr. Glover says race is a huge factor in the discussion around mental illness. “You can never lose track of the fact that the medical community, like many aspects of American society, has a history of being racist towards Black people,” she says. “There's evidence to show that doctors were not always kind to Black people, and sometimes still do not perceive when Black people are in emotional or physical pain. The treatment Black communities get is really subpar,” she says. “So I think in the popular conscience of every Black person in the United States is this conscious or unconscious resistance to interacting with folks in the medical community.”
Ultimately, both Dr Glover and Dr McIntyre says that the families of those with mental illness deserve support and compassion. Dr Glover says the National Alliance On Mental Health website is a good resource; the organisation has community meetings for friends and families that can be very helpful. Dr McIntyre urges loved ones to visit the DBSA website. He adds, "The key thing is that there are effective safe treatments for bipolar. There are new effective and safe treatments. And people with the disorder should speak to their healthcare provider about what's recommended."
Kardashian may have said it best in her Instagram story: “We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most. I kindly ask that the media and public give us the compassion and empathy that is needed so that we can get through this.”
(Update: Responding to Refinery29's request for comment, a representative for Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West only asked that Kardashian's statement, which can be seen above, be used in its entirety.)