It was well after midnight and my phone began to go off. This wasn’t unusual. For a very long time I’ve been operating shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness and that meant I was always on call, day or night. On the phone was our nighttime volunteer. I answered using a very low voice, trying not to wake my wife.
“Is everything okay?” I whispered.
Of course, everything wasn’t okay and it rarely was when I got these late night calls. On this particular night, one of our residents was having a complete breakdown. She believed she was the Virgin Mary and pregnant with he second coming of Jesus. Before long, I was arriving at the shelter working to calm her down and take over for the very unprepared volunteer.
The lady in question was of course not the actual Blessed Mother and we all knew she wasn’t pregnant with Baby Jesus 2.0 but beyond all that… she wasn’t pregnant at all. However, she had believed she was for nearly four years. During our slow progression into this delusion she had lost her friends and family. Many of them attempted to help but become overwhelmed and disillusioned as time went on and her troubles grew to be more than they could handle. Eventually, she ended up on the streets.
Over the course of my career I’ve met people who believed they were Kings or historical figures or famous people. I once met a woman who believed that all of the lyrics to Marshal Mathers’ songs were secretly about her. She had filed a number of federal lawsuits against him that she compiled by hand. These never went anywhere but, to her, all of this was as real as could be. Sometimes, the delusions were less grandiose and more believable. At one shelter program we had a man who had built an entire mythology about his time in the service. He would wake up in the middle of the night screaming about flashbacks he was having about the war. He had never served in the military.
All of these individuals slowly slipped into these personal mythologies and fell through the cracks in our system until they found themselves in jail, in mental health wards, and ultimately living on the streets. A few of them would find sympathetic ears that would believe their stories but ultimately, they would find themselves back out on the streets constantly cycling through the system and then falling back through the cracks again in an endless streaming of our broken mental health structure in the United States.
But what happens when that person having the breakdown isn’t someone already living on the edges of society’s crumbling infrastructure and is instead a multimillionaire with a massive platform who can reach millions upon millions of people with a single tweet?
Our society is cruel to people who are struggling with mental health concerns.
The more we have begun to have conversations about mental health, we’ve seemed to both socially warm to the reality that we need to address it but also seem to be grossly entertained by those who are suffering. Every one of us is guilty of laughing at memes or video clips or even entire Realty TV shows that have been built around people who are struggling. Instead of getting these folks the help they need, we circulate their memes or videos of their meltdowns across social media.
And now we have the biggest opportunity of them all to get it right, or to continue down the endless cycle of laughing at the problem, instead of facing it head on.
Kanye West is clearly struggling in the same way that so many people I’ve met over the years who live on the streets are struggling. The difference is, as his break with reality is consuming him, he isn’t falling through the cracks! No, he has a golden parachute. He is bigger than himself. Kanye is an empire. If he crumbles, the systems he has built can go on posthumously. We’ve seen it countless times with other celebrities.
But instead of addressing the real concerns surrounding what is happening to him, we laughed.
When he suddenly decided to go MAGA, he was mocked.
When he randomly announced he was running for President, he was ridiculed.
When he gave his first address as a candidate, people guffawed.
Then, on the night of 21st he went on a long and erratic series of tweets covering topics of his presidential run, mourning his mother, accusing his wife of betraying him, and promoting his upcoming album. Then, almost just as suddenly, everything vanished and the tweets disappeared.
Kim Kardashian, who is married to Kanye, suddenly emerged with a sobering response to what the world was witnessing, “As many of you know, Kanye has bi-polar disorder. Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand. I’ve never spoken publicly about how this has affected us at home because I am very protective of our children and Kanye's right to privacy when it comes to his health. But today, I feel like I should comment on it because of the stigma and misconceptions about mental health.
“I understand Kanye is subject to criticism because he is a public figure and his actions at times can cause strong opinions and emotions. He is a brilliant but complicated person who on top of the pressures of being an artist and a black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother, and has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar disorder. Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words some times do not align with his intentions.”
We have an opportunity to learn from this and correct course.
Regardless of how you feel about the Kardashians or Kanye, we were all invited in to watch someone lose control. We are now being asked by that family for compassion. But shouldn’t that be the assumed default? Moments like this should teach us that no one is safe from the reality of mental health concerns and that this struggle does not discriminate. It can attack anyone at anytime and drag them by the neck into their own personal hell.
There is nothing scarier than being out of control.
More than once I’ve seen individuals I’ve worked with, after they’ve reached a point of mental clarity, describe their episodes of manic behavior as feeling like a possession or as if they are watching what was happening, like someone else had taken the wheel. It’s like being drunk or high but on steroids and with the added discomfort of knowing it wasn’t a choice you made, it was something that happened to you. Your mind simply betrayed you.
Kanye will have a similar moment when all this settles. He will likely be embarrassed, as so many are, about what happens during manic episodes. Many people who struggle with mental illness are far too familiar with the apology circuit that happens after moments like this.
We need to give grace, mercy, and compassion to help create space for recovery. Kanye will ultimately be okay because he’s surrounded by an entire team and family that will not let him fail. There are no cracks for him to fall through.
For so many people there are. And had Kanye’s life gone just a little bit differently, had he not gotten the record deals and the the music videos and clothing lines and married into a dynasty… he might have been the guy standing outside the gas station this week, asking you for spare change and mumbling about how he was the President of the United States.
We need to reform mental health in this country, for Kanye, for you, for me, and for everyone who doesn’t have a household name, or a house at all, we need for them to be given that grace. They need to have the words of Kim Kardashian spoken over them as well, “they are a brilliant but complicated person… give them the compassion and empathy that is needed so that we can get through this.”