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On Kanye West, And How To Distinguish Passion From Mental Illness

Picture of Nadia Elysse
US Editorial Team Lead
Updated: 22 November 2016
It was the two-night, multi-layer Kanye West rant heard ‘round the world. He lobbed insults at Hillary Clinton, Beyoncé, Mark Zuckerberg, and many more. Even for the notoriously provocative West, it was an uncomfortable scene as he was booed by his loyal fans at two California concerts. The rapper abruptly ended the shows and as news spread of his erratic behavior, fans and media personalities alike criticized West, even starting #KanyeWestIsOverParty that has been trending for days on Twitter.

Now, just days after those rants and the cancellation of his remaining “Saint Pablo Tour” dates, West is reportedly in a Los Angeles hospital receiving treatment for exhaustion and sleep deprivation. This rapid unfolding of events has left some eating their words, replacing the #KanyeWestIsOverParty hashtag with #PrayForKanye. But for West, as with many mental health patients, compassion may have come later than it should have.

We’ve seen celebrities unravel before. The world (as well as paparazzi cameras) watched as Britney Spears infamously shaved her head during a short mental meltdown in 2007. Kesha went to rehab in 2014 for an eating disorder that she said stemmed from convincing herself that “being sick, being skinny, was part of [her] job.” And, just this year, rapper Kid Cudi checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal thoughts.

“I dealt with suicide for the past five years,” Cudi said in a 2014 interview on the Arsenio Hall Show. “You know, loneliness is a terrible, terrible thing, man. And if you don’t know how to conquer it, it can eat you alive.”

Absent from many of the initial reports on West’s rants was a touching moment he shared with Cudi. The two embraced sharing words and tears, it seemed, before pulling away from each other and doing a special handshake. It was a touching moment amid a strange series of events, but it signaled something bigger. One or both of the men, as it turns out, needed that hug — they needed a small dose of kindness.

To be fair, outside of a serious health crisis, it’s hard to imagine that multi-millionaires with the entire world at their fingertips have real problems. That’s why compassion, as onlookers, doesn’t come as easily. But, even in our personal lives, how do we distinguish between someone who is impassioned from someone who is on the brink of a mental meltdown?

We spoke to Dr. James Jackson, a psychologist and Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN, who said the distinction is difficult but not impossible. Not all exuberant people have psychiatric problems, but when that exuberance begins to interfere with the important things in their lives — family, work, sleep — it becomes problematic.

“The ‘passionate’ behavior that reflects mental health problems is often not adaptive — that is, it doesn’t serve people well and it ultimately impedes functioning,” Jackson told us. “Emotionally healthy people, even if they are extremely passionate, typically possess at a least a degree of flexibility in their behavior, a repertoire of behaviors that they can quickly adjust depending on the situation, whereas people with psychiatric problems frequently have a much harder time pivoting.”

Whether fans and media failed Kanye West is debatable, but you don’t have to fail your friends if you see them struggling. Maybe it’s annoying. Maybe it interferes with your day. Maybe it occasionally hurts your feelings. Knowing the signs of an actual mental health problem may help you approach a person in your life with kindness instead of taking it personally.

“The telltale signs of an emotional problem include extreme grandiosity, impassion accompanied by agitation, lack of sleep that raises concern for friends and family, appearance of not being in contact with reality, and irrational, erratic behavior,” Michigan-based psychologist Dr. Michele Leno told Culture Trip.

So, do your best to look for symptoms in your friends, family, and co-workers. And when in doubt, be kind.