Musician, fashion designer and would-be presidential candidate Kanye West’s public mental health breakdown – and the ongoing media furore surrounding it – shows how we still have a long way to go when it comes to discussing men’s mental health.
Men these days are more open about their struggles with mental health than ever before, and the dialogue in society about men’s mental health seems to be shifting. Yet there’s still a widespread reluctance among men to discuss mental health, and those who are open are still targets for ridicule.
West has never been afraid to speak his mind. In 2018, West made a very public admission of his bipolar disorder by releasing his eighth studio album ye, which album cover reads “I hate being bipolar / it’s awesome”, and has many tracks discussing his mental health.
In 2020, West’s latest moves have whipped the American media machine into a frenzy. First, West announced he was running in the US presidential election. He held a campaign rally where he broke down in tears and went on an incoherent rant. Days later, he made headlines for posting a quick succession of scatterbrained tweets, talking about abortion, accusing his wife Kim Kardashian of infidelity and speaking about his fears of being locked up among other things, before deleting most of his wildest thoughts and apologising to his wife.
I would like to apologize to my wife Kim for going public with something that was a private matter.
I did not cover her like she has covered https://t.co/A2FwdMu0YU Kim I want to say I know I hurt you. Please forgive me. Thank you for always being there for me.
— ye (@kanyewest) July 25, 2020
While West is infamous for having a huge ego as well as his many ill-considered public statements, his formal admission of being bipolar as well as his reluctance to take medication to support his mental health has got many considering whether his most recent antics are an example of a manic episode.
It’s pointless to speculate on West’s presidential ambitions, politics or personal life – the tabloids have done enough of that. What’s more important to discuss is how the American media allows Kanye West to have these unrestrained manic episodes, and then opens him up to be trivialised and denigrated. This highly questionable, click driven tactic also speaks to a broader issue in society today where men’s mental health issues tend to be dismissed, further dissuading men from speaking out about their issues.
DMARGE spoke exclusively to Mary Hoang, psychologist and founder of The Indigo Project, Australia’s largest and most progressive psychology practice, to further understand what’s at play.
“Although I think we’re getting much better and certainly moving in the right direction, there is still [an] overwhelming stigma in regards to mental health and it being perceived as a kind of weakness,” Hoang explains.
“As many of the firmly entrenched associations we have with masculinity (which are now being identified as toxic) are built on the idea of ‘strength’, or of being ‘tough’ and ‘dominant’, anything that challenges these traditional notions can be interpreted as negative.”
Americans, Australians – the world – is still largely uncomfortable with seeing men be vulnerable, she relates.
“Again, I think this links back to the toxic masculinity concept, and how rarely we give space (particularly through popular media, but also just generally in our own lives) to genuine displays of male vulnerability, without it being met with shame or humiliation. It’s something we don’t see often, so we don’t know how to respond to it and that ‘not-knowing’ causes us some discomfort.”
The way Kanye’s been ‘clowned’ on social media about his outbursts shows this discomfort. People make fun of it because it’s confronting (and because he’s saying some seriously questionable things). Seeing a grown man cry makes people uncomfortable.
West is hard to discuss in particular because he’s got such a reputation for saying outlandish things and having such a big ego. How much of his recent statements and actions are the behaviours of someone struggling with their mental health, and how much of it is him simply exploring unconventional ideas?
Who knows. But it’s certainly easier for those that love West’s music but hate the random right wing religious statements he’s been making lately to dismiss his outbursts as the result of madness than legitimate topics to be discussed. But if Americans wants to make more progress in both the political and mental health arenas, maybe they need to better differentiate (and respectfully contend with) these kind of ideas, and treat Kanye, his struggles, and his lived experience (even if it sometimes comes across as whacky) with more respect?
Of course, we don’t want to give bad ideas undue airtime. But given the insane state of affairs in America, we’d say, if there’s a fine line to be found here, we’re quite a way off finding it (maybe – both on the left and right – people need to give the other side’s “bad ideas” airtime so they can be hung out to dry).
Even putting politics aside: it would be patronising to write off everything Kanye says or does as ‘craziness’ – even mentally ill people have agency. There’s undoubtedly also a racial aspect to the way West is treated, too, which is whole other kettle of fish. It feels like despite the progress made around mental health in recent years, the American media is all too ready to treat men’s mental health breakdowns like this as just a sideshow to get more eyeballs and make more money.
Rather than being cynical or treating West’s situation as a source of entertainment, we should treat it as an opportunity for learning. Few men share the same sort of circumstances Kanye West finds himself (or has put himself) in but many share his clear desire to be heard and to be helped. What can we learn from Kanye’s recent struggles, and what needs to change about the way we deal with men’s mental health?
“[We need] radical acceptance of the vulnerability and genuine struggles of men,” Hoang recommends.
“We must allow the men in our lives to feel like they have safe spaces to share their feelings, ask for help and not feel pressured to rigidly adhere to the antiquated stereotypes of “being a man”. This means that, in the face of male vulnerability and struggle, we must meet them from a place of empathy and compassion, not one of judgement, shame and ridicule.”
Regardless of what you think of Kanye or the American cult of celebrity, there’s undeniably things we can learn from this whole episode, and maybe it can help us be a bit more empathetic to men’s mental health in our society.