Readers — and prospective voters — need context and subjects need dignity when they are vulnerable.
On the Fourth of July, Kanye West, the billionaire hip hop star, tweeted that he was running for president. He quickly paid $35,000 to qualify for the ballot in Oklahoma and then filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.
The media rushed in. West is an uber-celebrity married to uber-celebrity Kim Kardashian and a man given to wild, often amusing pronouncements. And so, his early riffs were treated as a humorous curiosity, a relief from the COVID epidemic.
But what was happening here was not the least bit funny. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist (as I am) to know that West is not in a rational frame of mind. The proper reaction is neither to take him seriously nor to laugh at him.
Consider the following bizarre things West said during a meandering four-hour phone interview that Forbes distilled into a July 8 article and that has so far garnered more than 3.1 million hits.
*West will establish a new political party called the “Birthday Party” because “when we win, it’s everybody’s birthday.”
*He is suspicious of a coronavirus vaccine, which he terms “the mark of the beast. They want to put chips inside us.”
*He foresees his White House modeled on the secret, high-tech country of Wakanda, home to the superhero Black Panther in the Marvel comic and movie.
On July 19, West held his first campaign rally in Charleston, S.C.. He broke down in tears; he claimed his brain was too big for his skull; he said famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves, she just had them work for other white people.”
West has a serious psychiatric condition: bipolar illness (once called manic-depressive illness). The Forbes journalist who interviewed him on July 8 should have suspected it, especially when West said to him, “You know I was out there, ended up in the hospital, people were calling me crazy. I’m not crazy.”
In 2016, West was placed on a psychiatric hold and hospitalized for the condition for about a week at the UCLA Medical Center. In 2019, he described for David Letterman on a Netflix show what manic phase is like: “When you’re in this state, you’re hyper-paranoid about everything…. Everything’s a conspiracy. You feel the government is putting chips in your head. You feel you’re being recorded. You feel all these things.” In 2018, West released an album that bore the phrase “I hate being bipolar. It’s awesome.”
This is a good summary of the profile of bipolar illness. Other symptoms include irritability, the sensation of “racing” thoughts, agitation, grandiose plans, spending sprees, pressured speech, inability to sleep, poor judgment, and exuberance which can seem infectious at first. As the mania recedes months or weeks of dark depression may follow.
People with bipolar illness can respond well to medication. The late actress Carrie Fisher, who suffered with the disease, became an advocate for treatment. As for West: Kim Kardashian-West told Vogue last year that while her husband accepts his diagnosis: “being on medication is not really an option, because it just changes who he is.”
Yet, after the South Carolina rally this Sunday, the New York Post reported, that West’s wife was “mortified” and “desperately worried” that he was not taking medication. As West, tweeted Monday night, she “tried to bring a doctor to lock me up with a doctor. If I get locked up like Mandela… Ya’ll will know why.” According to People, she had been trying to get him help for weeks.
How should the media cover subjects whose admitted psychiatric illnesses produce bizarre statements and actions?
“It was the journalistic duty of the Forbes writer to mention West’s mental illness,” Meg Kissinger of Columbia University School of Journalism told me. “It’s almost as if the article lampooned him. What is the point of an article without such context or perspective?” asked Kissinger who runs a seminar series for graduate students and journalists on mental illness, in collaboration with the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia’s medical school.
West’s presidential prospects are not promising. He has dropped in and out of the race since July 15. He missed the deadline to file a petition in South Carolina, the site of his first rally, but a recent poll said that 2 percent of Americans would vote for him. On Monday (Ed: July 20) West filed to appear on the Illinois ballot.
If journalists feel they must cover famous people when they are in the throes of mental illness, they must include information about their subjects’ known psychiatric history. Readers – and prospective voters—need context and subjects need dignity when they are vulnerable. The public should take the talented Mr. West’s disease seriously, but not his political plans.
Sally Satel is a visiting professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute