Kanye West: Internet Culture and the Stigmatization of Mental Health
By Carolina Oxenstierna The infamous Kanye West, now legally known as Ye since his name change in 2018, has recently been the center of the internet’s typically fleeting attention. Due to his controversial posts on Instagram centering around his divorce from Kim Kardashian, he has placed himself under the public’s scrutiny. What started with Kanye voicing his concerns over custody of his four children has quickly spiraled into the attack of his ex-wife’s current boyfriend, comedian Pete Davidson—to whom he infamously refers to as ‘Skete’—and the public beratement of celebrities who have spoken out against his actions. Following the beginning of these impulsive posts, Kanye has since been banned from Instagram, removed from the lineup of performers at the Grammys, and has received tremendous public backlash reprimanding and denouncing his actions. This public breakdown is far from abnormal for Kanye, a figure who shoulders a history of capriciousness and controversy. From interrupting Taylor Swift’s MTV acceptance speech in 2009, to declaring his campaign for presidency in 2020, Kanye has taken on the role of the notoriously unpredictable and erratic character within the public eye. In 2018, he confirmed that he suffers from bipolar disorder with the release of his self-titled album “Ye,” which features the phrase “I hate being bipolar it’s awesome” scribbled on the cover and states that his mental illness is his “superpower” in the song “Yikes.” Over the years, he has become more vocal about being bipolar: in an interview with David Letterman in 2019, he described a manic episode to feel like “the government is putting chips in your head” and like “ you’re being recorded.” Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that affects roughly 2.8% of the US population and is characterized by “dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to think clearly,” (according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness) in which there are periods of mania and depression. Manic episodes are defined by unpredictable and impulsive behavior, delusion and impaired judgement, as well as the lack of awareness of the negative consequences of one’s actions. Given these symptoms, it has become abundantly clear that Kanye is currently suffering from another manic episode. His online persona is in a state of recklessness, abrasiveness, and paranoia in which he has victimized himself and created the illusion that it’s “him versus the world.” In recent years, the internet has made steady progress in attempting to shine light upon mental health issues that have typically been swept under the rug in an attempt to normalize and spread comfort to those that suffer in silence. This has since exponentially progressed following the various COVID-19 lockdowns in which many people struggled with solitude, the deprivation of human interaction, and an overall disruption in reality. In a survey issued by the US Census Bureau in December of 2020, a shocking 42% of US adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. To cope with this harsh reality, there has been an increase in people being sincere about mental health issues on social media, in turn helping others realize that they are not alone in their struggles. People have become more aware of the fact that more people than we think suffer from mental health issues. This has created a trend towards accommodation, acceptance, and normalization. However, such candidness is deceiving to some extent. While some topics under the umbrella of mental health have been touched upon, a truly cohesive public illumination of mental health has yet to be achieved by the online community. The stigma around mental illness—especially ones as severe as bipolar disorder—is still very present. Meme culture on the internet continues to mock, retweet, and belittle mental health struggles. While Kanye’s mental illness does not excuse his destructive actions, the public’s response to his breakdown is inexcusable. Within the past month, the internet has seen an enormous influx of memes regarding Kanye’s outburst. While it is so easy to jump on the bandwagon of making fun of his absurdity, people disregard the fact that Kanye needs serious medical help, and instead are quick to write off his behavior as “Kanye just being crazy Kanye”. This subsequently invalidates his struggles, as people who don’t understand the severity and gravity of his mental illness are the ones who pass judgment on his actions. Although the memes might not be purposefully harmful, they inadvertently contribute to the ever-prevalent stigma surrounding severe mental health issues, where people’s serious struggles are ridiculed. The symptoms of bipolar disorder are not relatable to most people in the same way that those of depression or anxiety are, so they are more misunderstood and difficult to sympathize with. With regard to Kanye’s situation, the unfamiliarity is even more present, since he is one of the most recognized celebrities of our current generation. Society’s idolization of celebrities elicits the severe detachment between them and the public, in which celebrities are stripped of their humanity. They are viewed as mere objects of the industry for the public to observe and consume, and are held to impossible standards of perfection and social compliance. “Regular” people and celebrities seemingly live in two entirely separate worlds; so, when a celebrity as notable as Kanye has a very public and widespread breakdown, it shatters the false image that people have of celebrities. Due to Kanye’s eccentricity and mania-induced psychosis, he has veered away from the social norms that have been placed upon him by a public that does not fundamentally consider him one of them—a person. His actions border upon the absurd to those who have not had prior exposure to bipolar disorder. This lack of understanding fosters mockery—a human reaction when trying to make sense of this irregularity and absurdity from such an established celebrity within the scope of their narrow worldview. Kanye’s breakdown sheds some light into the more unpalatable parts of mental illness that are difficult to process and understand. He is still a real person, and there are many people out there who bear the same struggles. The dehumanization and mockery of Kanye exacerbates the stigma that people who suffer from bipolar disorder already have to deal with. Memes and jokes may seem funny in the moment to those that do not suffer at the hands of them, but they perpetuate harmful stigmas that affect real people, even without the intention of doing so. Carolina Oxenstierna is a freshman in the SFS and is undeclared.