As you’ve probably heard, Kanye West gave a rambling monologue at the Oval Office Oct. 11 that achieved the impressive feat of leaving US president Donald Trump, a prodigious rambler in his own right, quite speechless.
In the talk, the rapper and entrepreneur touched on topics ranging from prison reform to slavery to gun control. He also addressed the elephant in the room, his own mental health, at one point referring to himself as “a crazy motherfucker.”
West has lately discussed his mental health frequently. Since sort of confirming a diagnosis of bipolar disorder via his album Ye over the summer—in which he called it a “superpower”—he has made several erratic appearances (video) in which he discussed a hospitalization and medications. Yesterday at the White House, he claimed he had been misdiagnosed and was simply sleep-deprived.
As they have in the past, plenty of people have come out to state their agreement with the rapper’s self-diagnoses—at least the “crazy” part. The talk show host Jimmy Kimmel said of the exchange (video), “this was the kind of conversation that would typically be held between people wearing hospital bracelets.” Laypeople on Twitter chimed in, journalists offered their diagnoses, and some mental health professionals have expressed concern.
Pete Davidson—a comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member who has openly discussed his own struggle with borderline personality disorder—gave his two cents on West’s mental health on Saturday (before the rapper’s White House visit but after a head-scratcher of an SNL hosting gig):
“Being mentally ill is not an excuse to act like a jackass,” Davidson said on the show’s Weekend Update segment, urging West not to go off his meds: “Take ’em!” Davidson says, addressing West. “There’s no shame in the medicine game. I’m on ’em. It’s great!”
Armchair diagnosing as a national pastime
Of course, in a free society everyone has the right to criticize the actions and words of elected leaders, public figures, and celebrities. But lately the online calling-out of celebrity “meltdowns,” and the armchair-diagnosing of everyone from West to the Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk to Trump himself, has become something of a spectator sport. It may be amusing to mock the mental state of powerful or famous people, but it’s actually irresponsible, problematic, and ultimately pointless.
Another patient of the internet’s self-appointed psychologists this week was Brandon Truaxe, the embattled CEO of the beauty brand Deciem, who set off a storm of speculation about his mental state after an Instagram video announcing from the back seat of a car that his company will shutter, effective immediately. It was only the latest in a series of seemingly impulsive moves by Trauxe, who has reportedly spent time in several different psychiatric facilities (paywall) in the past year.
Similarly, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was accused this summer of “losing it” in a stress-related meltdown after posting several unusual tweets, leading to a litany of headlines on his “meltdown” (not to mention worse consequences from the US Securities and Exchange Commission).
How to diagnose public figures who behave strangely
The short answer is: Don’t. Unless you’re a qualified mental health professional who has worked directly with the patient, don’t suggest a diagnosis.
Diagnosing famous people from afar is a fraught affair, and was banned by the American Psychiatric Association in 1964, under the “Goldwater Rule,” which forbid its members from commenting on a public figure’s mental health without an in-person examination.
The big problem with armchair diagnoses is that they’re often wrong, explained Steve Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for psychiatric research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in an interview with Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill: “Coming up with a diagnosis (or ruling one out), requires knowing about the patient’s medical history, full list of symptoms, what medication they take, whether they’ve experienced head trauma, and whether they drink or use drugs.”
In other words, even for professionals, diagnoses are incredibly nuanced. And while it’s statistically likely that most of us either know someone who has suffered from mental struggles, or have experienced them ourselves, that doesn’t make us all experts. “Recognizing the signs” of mentally ill behavior and marking them as psychotic is not useful, and actually does a disservice to psychology and those living with mental illness.
This problem is exacerbated when we’re dealing with celebrities. Everything West, Musk, and their ilk do feeds directly into a celebrity gossip mill that treats them as “curiosities to be observed and studied,” wrote Lux Alpatrum for Vox.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a gendered aspect to this tendency: When famous men behave strangely, initial speculation often suggests that they’re acting out for marketing purposes. And the erratic behavior of successful men is sometimes attributed to “tortured genius” (where being an asshole is assumed to be a part of the creative process).
Meanwhile, women who diverge from conventional behavior are often labeled “crazy” and assumed to be lying or delusional. The actress Rose McGowan—who alleges that she was raped by Harvey Weinstein in 1997—told the Television Critics Association that for many years her activism was “painted as crazy” by the media.
And while Trump might have legitimate complaints about the armchair diagnosing he has been subjected to, he also has a long history of trying to debunk criticism or accusations from women by calling them crazy:
Ultimately, the best advice is to leave the diagnosing to the professionals—and perhaps turn off the TV for the sake of your own mental health.