Trigger warning: Gun violence and mental health issues
According to the CDC, “more than 50% [of people] will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime,” and “1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.” Metrics like these show that talking about one’s mental health struggles is a valid endeavor, and it should be as normal to do so as one may talk about a physical illness. However, there is a difference between discussing one’s health challenges, either physical or mental, and using these struggles as an excuse to justify hurting those in one’s vicinity.
In doing a bit of research for this piece, I’ve combed through many articles discussing this very topic in terms of the actions of Ye, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016. Many publications talk about separating his problematic activity, including anti-Black statements, antisemitic statements, public harassment of his now ex-wife Kim Kardashian and more, from his diagnosed mental health issues. It was validating to see that I wasn’t the only one thinking about this, but I also want to expand on the fact that this is far from a Ye issue.
Debates about gun control are another popular forum that this issue appears in frequently. If you’ve ever heard that pro-gun slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” that’s essentially the gist of the mental health angle of the debate. By blaming America’s problem with gun violence entirely on the mental states of those who perpetrate gun crime, people once again fail to separate the mental health issue from the negative actions. There are two issues here — more certainly needs to be done about gun regulation in this country, but at the same time, mental health infrastructure is seriously neglected. Conflating these issues is convenient when trying to ignore the necessity of one, but it’s not the right thing to do.
With the Ye situation, writing off his damaging actions as simply a symptom of his mental health issues is very invalidating to all those that are negatively affected by him. Conversely, there’s also a very real conversation to be had about his mental health troubles, including how diagnoses are often based on Eurocentric models, as Dr. Kevin Cokley of the University of Michigan explains in a Psychology Today article. Again, as with the gun issue, these two issues are equally important, but should be handled separately.
The idea that mental health struggles and the consequences of actions made by those with them should be separated can be applied to all scopes of life — in fact, everyone can probably relate to it on a personal level. Personally, I’ve struggled with depression at times in my life, and at some of my lows, the choices I have made have hurt people around me. There are two truths that come out of that, and they are the same as the two other cases discussed: Firstly, my mental health struggles were and are valid, but secondly, I still have to live with the consequences of my actions. Using the former to justify the latter wouldn’t be fair to those affected around me by some of my actions, but it also wouldn’t be fair to me, as it would be denying the fact that I could have acted differently.
I want to end this off just by saying that there’s a difference between explanation and justification. Many times, mental health can be part of the explanation for why someone does something, and that action could be harmful to people other than the actor. However, you can’t draw a straight line from Ye’s bipolar diagnosis to his harmful actions, from a mass shooter’s mental struggles to them pulling the trigger or even from someone’s personal mental illness to how those around them are affected. These possible partial explanations should not be used as excuses, but instead should be used as a road map to helping part of the problem.