Kanye, Bipolar Disorder, Religiosity, and My Thoughts

While my entire Facebook feed is filled with articles and comments about Kanye West’s new album and recent conversion, I have stayed silent. Why?

Because number one, I don’t really know anything about Kanye to begin with (other than the time he hijacked Taylor Swift’s speech on the VMAs and the famous rant about George Bush not caring about black people). He has kids with weird names and a wife with an awesome body. That’s about all I know. Superficial? Maybe. I can’t tell you the name of any of his songs. They’re not on my running playlist.

Number two, what he does or says doesn’t have any affect on me personally. If he wants to sing songs about being rich and famous or songs about Jesus – cool. I typically don’t speak up about issues in pop culture unless I feel they have some kind of heart-twisting impact on me and my life… or if they have some kind of mental health connection.

So when I heard he suffers from bipolar disorder, that’s when the light bulb turned on. How did I miss this? Talk about a plot twist! It led me to take an interest in all the Kanye news of the last year or so. While many out there are debating whether his conversion is real or a publicity stunt, my first thought upon learning this is – is this all a manic episode?

Religiosity in mania isn’t uncommon. An increased focus on religion or religious activities can be a symptom of mania or hypomania. Not all religious fervor is related to this, of course, but combine religiosity with grandiosity and you may see exactly what we’re seeing with Kanye’s new album and very public conversion.

Now, some might argue this point as a way to discredit him and everything he is doing. Stories of revival and faith-filled concerts are also flooding my news feed, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. God has always used unlikely heroes to spread his message.

But there are many out there who express concern that what he is doing is a symptom of a greater issue – the fact that he is… wait for it… unmedicated.

Whoa. That phrase really freaks people out. An unmedicated bipolar person let loose in the world??? What could come of this?

I’m glad you asked. Here are a few examples of the results of an unmedicated bipolar person’s work:

  • The Sistine Chapel
  • Starry Night
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • War and Peace
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Swan Lake

There are countless other examples, all from a book I read long ago called Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Many of these cultural contributors deeply suffered and self-medicated and some even took their own lives. But let me play devil’s advocate.

Throughout time, bipolar disorder has led to amazing works of art. In fact, though the book doesn’t list any, I’d be interested in knowing how many famous preachers or other cultural movers and shakers suffered from a touch of bipolar disorder. How many world leaders have bursts of goal-directed activity, inflated self-confidence and grandiosity, little need for sleep, paired with the occasional crash downward?

Now, here’s the thing. IF the disorder is causing impaired judgment and endangerment to anyone, that is a problem. If hallucinations and psychosis are involved, that is a problem. That indicates that serious help is needed. We live in an extraordinary time when there is so much help available. Like my experience with risky behavior during my first manic episode, I needed medical intervention.

However, I am at a place now where I can manage my moods using other tools – one tool being the support of people who care about me and can often catch when something is off before I can. I know my limits, and I know when I need to call in for more help. I am living with a chronic PHYSICAL illness, so I don’t mess around with inflammatory triggers. I have to be careful with sleep, as some have even referred to bipolar disorder as a circadian rhythm disorder. I take supplements to keep my gut healthy and to make sure I don’t have any nutrient deficiencies – which can lead to more brain health issues.

I use whatever hypomania I have to work with me, not against me. I use the increase in goal-directed activity toward my work and mission in bringing awareness in normalizing mental health care. I check in with my counselor and loved ones to make sure I’m on the right path. I run my thought patterns and ideas by them. I have been stable for over a decade now.

It IS possible to manage mental health without medication, and it IS possible that medication isn’t right for everyone. (Side note – in case you haven’t looked at the studies, more people are medicated for mental illness than ever before, and mental health outcomes are no better than they were in the 1950s. It’s time to look for new tools.)

The fact that Kanye is unmedicated doesn’t concern me – as long as he isn’t putting himself or anyone else in harm’s way. The fact that his religious fervor could be the result of a manic episode doesn’t concern me.

What concerns me is the fact that there are still too many people who are willing to discredit a person because of mental illness. What other medical diagnosis warrants this kind of a response? What if he had celiac disease (which also manifests in mental health issues) – would people also say, “Oh, well you know – he has celiac, so he might be crazy…”

No. There is still a stigma with mental illness. There is still a risk, that in admitting you struggle with mental health issues like bipolar, everything you say or do will be attributed to that disorder.

And I’m starting to see an even greater stigma towards those who choose to handle mental illness through nontraditional ways. When I first publicly shared that I don’t take medication anymore, I had quite a few people reach out to me in concern, because they knew someone who went off medication and it didn’t end well. (I won’t go into more detail on that today, but there are well-documented scientific reasons for that. For an interesting article on antidepressants increasing the risk of suicide, click here)

This is also the point where I get accused of being anti-med. Hello? I was medicated for 18 years – it would be hypocritical to say I am against medication. I’m not. I’m PRO treating each individual suffering from any illness on an individual basis, looking at root causes, and if medication is warranted and the benefits outweigh the risks – great.

But if it IS possible for someone to manage mental health through other tools and healthy behaviors, how awesome would that be?

My conclusion – we still aren’t having honest conversations about mental illness. We’re still classifying, categorizing, and making judgments without a deeper knowledge of what is happening for each individual person diagnosed. Reading all the articles about Kanye and his diagnosis confirms that for me. There is concern that his decision not to use medication will be a dangerous influence on those who flippantly handle their illness or choose to go off their meds, leading to a destructive spiral – and I get that.

But let’s remember that there is no one size fits all when it comes to brain health. Maybe his mention of alternative treatments would lead someone (like I did 5 years ago) to look into what else they could be doing to manage their illness, to search for other tools for healing that may even work – dare I suggest this – better than medication?

There is no one cause to mental illness. Likewise, there is no one treatment.

And louder, for the people in the back, there is no one size fits all to a healthy brain.

My bipolar disorder does not look like someone else’s. Kanye West’s bipolar disorder doesn’t look like mine. I truly hope that his recent conversion doesn’t just lead us into discussion about faith and transformation, but that it leads into a larger discussion of bipolar disorder, brain health, and the impact on society as a whole.


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