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Kanye West doesn’t ‘need help,’ Trump and Biden aren’t ‘senile’. Mental health slurs are lazy and stigmatise people like me

Andrew Dickens
Andrew Dickens

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.

Kanye West doesn’t ‘need help,’ Trump and Biden aren’t ‘senile’. Mental health slurs are lazy and stigmatise people like me
The recent emotional speech by Kanye West was labelled by many as a sign of mental illness. Take it from someone with mental health issues, this ignorant habit of casting doubt on someone’s sanity is dangerous and needs to stop.

I’m sure we can all agree that Kanye West’s speech at the weekend was unorthodox, both in terms of content and delivery. The tears and the taking on of Harriet Tubman’s legacy were always going to get attention, which might well have been his aim.

The online reaction, sadly, was very orthodox: people collectively twirling a finger next to their temples. West is “unstable” and “needs help.” He’s clearly “not right in the head.” In short, saying these things makes him a madman.

Whatever you think of his beliefs, West has been brave enough to talk publicly about his struggles with bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, due to a colossal level of ignorance when it comes to mental health, combined with a perverse need in some people to cut down anyone they disagree with, his honesty has backfired.

Among social media’s many evils is a growing propensity in people of all political persuasions for casually using mental health as an insult. It’s an easy and lazy way to sow doubt about someone – about their opinions or ability to do a job. “Don’t listen to him, he’s crazy.” 

So, West does something deemed unusual and everyone’s talking about him having a “manic episode.” Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been accused of being “senile” on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Famous women are regularly dismissed as “hysterical” (a word that’s wrong on many levels). The media are just as bad as your average troll, always looking for rent-a-quack psychologists to assess public figures for pathological disorders.

I mean, why use reasoned argument when you can dog-whistle looney tunes? 

Because there is huge collateral damage. It harms more than just the intended target. People like me suffer, too. 

I live with mental health issues every day, notably depression and anxiety. I use every tool I’ve developed over the years to cope so that I can make a living, enjoy my family and friends, and appreciate some of life’s better bits. 

In 2010, I became the first British male journalist to write about his experiences in a major mainstream magazine. It was tough, but it opened the floodgates for countless other articles and what I hoped would be an adult discussion of the subject and, eventually, an end to the stigma associated with mental health.

Let’s just say it’s a work in progress. 

People still don’t seem to get two things: One, that mental illness is like any other illness, often with physical symptoms, and anyone can suffer from it at any time; and, two, that using terms associated with mental health as insults is crass, insensitive and naive in the extreme.

The latter exacerbates the stigma attached to mental illness, which means that when the former kicks in, people stop looking at you in the same way. Discrimination on mental health grounds is everywhere because it’s so hard to prevent or prove. People are prejudiced, even if they don’t mean to be. 

They think you’re less able and less stable, which affects your chances in work, love, friendship and pretty much all the big, important things in life – despite that fact that, as is very much the case with me, our ‘conditions’ often make us better at those things. (And despite the fact that they probably have their own issues that they simply haven’t acknowledged yet.)

And so what do people with mental health issues do? We hide them for fear of that judgement. And what does that achieve? It makes things worse, because they’re not being talked about openly. And where do we go from there? All aboard the vicious circle. Do you think the treatment of West is going to encourage anyone to be open?

So, please, if you’re someone who likes to dismiss people as ‘gone mad’ or senile without a shred of genuine evidence (i.e. if you’re not their doctor or shrink), please stop. If you’re about to lazily call someone a nutjob because they don’t conform to your norms, don’t. Not only does it mean that you’ve lost the argument, but you’re making a lot of other lives just that little bit worse – including your own.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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