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Allow Me To Add My Voice To The Chorus of Disgust Over How The Internet Talks About Mental Health
Ye’s meltdown has breathed new life into some ugly and ignorant tropes
One of the strange things about watching the terrible, prolonged downfall of Kanye West, a.k.a. Ye, has been noticing how important it is to certain people that mental illness not be a root cause of it.
To take one of a million examples, Josh Marshall, the founder of Talking Points Memo, wrote on Twitter, “i really hope this doesn’t get papered over at some later point as mental illness because i’m familiar with the DSM-5 and there’s no illness which has loving hitler as a primary diagnostic feature.”
This is also a common refrain when there’s a viral video of a disturbed-seeming person spouting racial slurs. It can’t be that their mental health problems caused them to do that — it just can’t!
I think most people know that this is a ridiculous position, given that severe, untreated mental health problems can indeed cause people to become disinhibited and conspiratorial and to fall victim to other symptoms that lead them down a road toward bigoted beliefs and/or utterances. If you’re unconvinced, I’ll point you toward Freddie deBoer and Hadley Freeman.
This bit from deBoer, in particular, is quite good:
Two things I really hate: morals of convenience and false friends. The types of people who say “mental illness doesn’t do that” are the types to profess support for those with psychiatric disorders, but only when it’s easy, when the mentally ill are doing the socially approved things like talking to themselves on the subway. Which of course means that they are no friend to the mentally ill at all; support only means something when it comes at a cost. In its magisterial simplicity, social justice politics has created a vision of the mentally ill as unblemished and blameless children who are easy to exonerate because they never did anything wrong. But to spend time in a psychiatric facility is to hear the n-word, to meet people who have committed domestic violence, to confront the many forms of brokenness within the human race. It’s not cinematic. Nobody’s there who hasn’t done genuinely unfortunate things. That’s what mental illness actually is, not aesthetically-pleasing movie madness but grubby, dirty instability. I see a lot of it in West, and I hope he can get the help he seemingly resists. And I do blame him for his bad behavior at the same time. Balancing those things isn’t easy. Never is. You see, it’s complicated.
My own term for this is “shallow allyship.” Shallow allyship is a pretty big problem when it comes to mental illness. It’s annoying. But what drives me bonkers is shallow allyship paired with a childlike understanding of what mental health problems are.
Take this tweet from an author named Shiv Ramdas, which got him appropriately roasted: “I have a friend with bipolar disorder I’ve known 15 yrs and when he gets manic he stays up really late memorizing song lyrics and every so often he’ll call demanding I play him at FIFA immediately but he somehow manages to never hand it to Hitler so idk about this excuse for Ye.”
Look, there’s a genuinely complicated argument to be had here about the nature of agency and mental illness and which syndromes can cause which symptoms. But the folks on Ramdas’ side of this debate — including the author of this really bad and hyper-reductive Gizmodo article — aren’t trying to have that debate. They’re trying to say Mental illness couldn’t be a major explanatory factor here, full stop.
To be clear, I’m not saying that I know there’s a super clear-cut line from Ye’s mental health crisis to his anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing. I can’t know that because 1) I am not a therapist; and 2) I am not Ye’s therapist. Hell, I bet even multiple therapists who personally examined Ye would disagree on the specifics, because this stuff is complicated.
What I am saying is that it’s utterly ridiculous to say that you know it’s a cop-out to blame his mental health. It’s utterly ridiculous because someone in a mental health crisis can end up in some very dark, very conspiratorial places for reasons that are rather well understood. And I don’t find “Well, sure, but I don’t think bipolar disorder in particular could cause this sort of behavior” to be a compelling rebuttal, because we don’t know exactly what his diagnosis is right at this moment, anyway! Who the hell knows what’s going on? All that’s clear is that he’s in the midst of a disastrous meltdown and has managed to absolutely destroy his reputation, and partly destroy his finances, in a very short period of time.
At the end of the day, people want sufferers of mental illness to be cute, cuddly mascots. They want it to be the case that symptoms are basically quirks — “Ha ha, my bipolar friend wants to play video games again!” This is exactly what deBoer means when he talks about the gentrification of disability. If the worst thing that happens, when you love someone who has a mental health problem, is they want to play video games or go on super long walks or talk on the phone or they get a bit sad for a day or two… well, then it wouldn’t be very hard to love people with mental illness, would it? It wouldn’t be too hard to maintain your relationships with them.
The reality is very different, and it can get very ugly. I saw this a bit with my mom, whose severe depression would sometimes make her very, very difficult to be around. Not just after her cancer diagnosis, when her mental health completely cratered, but long before that, during the decade or so when her depression was quite bad. Overall, she was a loving and doting mother, and she did the best she could under circumstances that got cartoonishly bad, but she was often in tremendous agony — and it would show. She would lash out and say cruel things and there wasn’t much we could do about it. It sucked. Her personality absolutely changed once her depression set in.
Or take my friend “Bob.” Or former friend, I guess — Bob is the one close friend who has cut me off due to political bullshit. Maybe a year and a half ago, via text message, he more or less demanded I denounce Katie Herzog over something she had said, and when I said that no, I wouldn’t do that, that was basically that. We’d been friends since college.
Bob has been through some traumatic family events and has pretty severe mental health problems. (I’m not going to share anything that would identify him to someone who doesn’t already know who he is.) Over the years I tried to help him when I could, but to be one of his few close friends was sometimes to wade in a river of sewage. He would say a lot of fucked up stuff about himself — about how worthless he was, about how hopeless his prospects were, and so on. I was always honest with him, which included telling him I thought he was brilliant (he is brilliant) and had a lot to offer the world if he could get his shit together, but he didn’t want to hear that. It was like it was really important to him for other people also to recognize him as the piece of shit he saw himself as, and he resented me for not agreeing with his self-assessment. Being close friends with him also meant dealing with truly damaging behavioral outbursts, especially when alcohol was involved (in college he both slapped my visiting high school friend in the face and took a swing at a cop).
I don’t know exactly what Bob “had” or “has,” and maybe it changed over the years. I don’t even think he had consistent enough contact with the mental health care system to get a clear diagnosis, albeit partly for understandable reasons, since even getting a therapist can feel like running a gauntlet. But the point is this is a dude who I considered a very close friend, whose wedding I was in, and who I stuck with out of loyalty despite the turbulence that entailed (which I think any decent friend would have done — I’m not trying to portray myself as some outlier martyr here).
So I can tell you with complete certainty that there was never anything fucking cuddly or cute or uWu about dealing with Bob’s dark side. There was no redemption arc, no sense in which all he really needed was someone to talk to, no late-night FIFA sessions — none of that. I find it infuriating that anyone who has loved someone with real mental health problems could talk about this subject the way so many people are. How does this translate to their personal relationships? Do they stick with their mentally ill friends until the FIFA marathons morph into something darker, at which point they drop them? Once their mentally ill friends get violent or suicidal, is it time to lecture them about “personal responsibility” and hope they do better?
What appears to be going on here is people look at someone’s behavior, and then, based on how much it outrages them, they decide whether to attribute it to personal shortcomings (their fault) or mental illness (not their fault). It’s safe to chalk up a desire to play FIFA all night to mental illness, because there’s no major moral taint associated with gaming too much. But anti-Semitism is, on the other hand, very stigmatized — as it should be — so if someone does something anti-Semitic, all that nice, cute, cuddly talk about destigmatizing mental health goes out the window. It’s time for us all to become “personal responsibility” conservatives, to demand that the Kanyes of the world stop blaming others for their problems and pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
It goes without saying that this is an insane way to decide who’s responsible for what. Some people’s delusions lead them to yell racial slurs, and others lead them to yell about being haunted by invisible dragons. You cannot, especially from a distance, accurately assess what’s “under” the illness. You need to treat anyone suffering from a mental health breakdown with as much charity and compassion as you can muster, period. People are failing to do that here, and it’s gross.
Questions? Comments? Confident assertions about which of my bad takes are my own fault and which are the result of my myriad latent psychological problems? I’m at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal.
Image: PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 02: Kanye West aka Ye is seen wearing a Balenciaga boxing mouthguard, outside Givenchy, during Paris Fashion Week - Womenswear Spring/Summer 2023 - Day Seven on October 02, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/GC Images)