Kanye West's mental health has been a topic of public conversation for some time. West is a unique figure – famed for hubris and undeniable creative brilliance – whose statements and behaviour have been controversial in the past, but even more so recently. Comments he made to TMZ in May associating slavery with "a choice" resulted in calls to boycott his music. On his new album, Ye, West makes reference to living with bipolar disorder, dismissing the concept of the condition as a disability, and describing it as "a superpower".
Prof Wendy Burn, president of the UK's Royal College of Psychiatrists, praised West, describing his use of "positive, empowering language" around mental illness as "refreshing". West was not diagnosed until the age of 39, and there is indeed a dearth of positive narratives in relation to more severe or stigmatised mental-health conditions.
However, to describe bipolar disorder as “a superpower” goes too far in the other direction, ignoring the costs of living with (or living with someone who has) a serious mental health condition. While mental illness should not be stigmatised, nor should it be romanticised.
Mental illness is untidy, difficult and often invisible from the outside. It is not a curse or a superpower, it is simply a complex state of being that can punctuate ordinary lives
Those with bipolar disorder often speak of the benefits of the highs, but it is sensible to question the cost of this elevated state. A feeling that one is capable of anything, rocketing along at a speed that surpasses everyone else, that music melts into your skin, that you can will the world to betterment, and that anything you attempt must necessarily be a success, can bring about some of these possibilities.
Some people who live with bipolar disorder, such as West, possess creative gifts and achieve commercial success. Many others do not. Even if there may be an optimal point to the manic high, it does not end there – the pace becomes too fast, the thought too brief, the feeling too overwhelming, and bad decisions, risk-taking, neglect of dependents and loved ones, the spending of money that often is not there, often all feature.
At worst, to those who love them, those in the midst of mania can be deceptive, self-obsessed, and sometimes abusive, aggressive or coercive. The unflattering reality of manic highs is that they can rise a person so far above those around them as to make them solipsists – when others do not, cannot, feel, know, be, like the person in the vortex of the high, then thinking of them doesn’t seem relevant.
The everyday truth of mental illness is complex. Exceptional selfishness and wonderful sensitivity and thoughtfulness can exist, and find expression, within the same individual. While it would not be true or fair to suggest that those with bipolar disorder cannot live well, and be well (they certainly can and do), West is in danger of glamourising the highs and feeding into the superiority narrative they create that already makes those in the midst of a manic episode difficult to convince that they in fact need help.
Conceptually we seem to grasp depression – at least better than we understand mania. Setting aside the ignorance of a “shake it off” mentality (which is unhelpful and supported neither by psychology nor by the relevant science), we accept that the deep, gaping maw of a depressive low is not necessarily inherently valuable or constructive, but frightening and awful.
To have your own voice within your mind constantly, relentlessly repeating that you are worthless, worthless, worthless, so loudly that you are rendered immobile, cannot sleep or hold a conversation, is not a beneficial thing. There are perhaps positives to learn in the process of returning to balance from that place, but the lows are not a form of revealed truth.
The voice of depression is a liar. It places its victim in a special category of incapacity, worthlessness, and dread. It pulls a dirty veil across everything, making the depressed person incapable of seeing anything clean and bright and good, about themselves or anything else.
Few would maintain that incapacitating desolation is a superpower, even if wonderful art can be retrospectively inspired by it. The highs of bipolar disorder are no more truthful simply because they feel wonderful. Mental illness is untidy, difficult and often invisible from the outside. It is not a curse or a superpower, it is simply a complex state of being that can punctuate ordinary lives.