Featured on Forbes. Author: Prudy Gourguechon
Here’s what happened:
Donald Trump met with celebrities Kanye West and Jim Brown Thursday to discuss, apparently, issues important to black people, including criminal justice reform.
Two days earlier, CNN’s Don Lemon hosted a panel that included former Congressman Bakari Sellers and CNN contributor Tara Setmayer to discuss the upcoming meeting between West and Trump. The three panel members were clearly upset by the presumption that West could represent black people’s concerns or was qualified to speak seriously about any issue. Setmayer said no one should be taking West seriously, given his recent behavior. “He clearly has issues. He's already been hospitalized.” The conversation was fast-paced and sophisticated, with several in-jokes.
West’s behavior at the White House meeting included a 10-minute, rapid-fire, rambling monologue that featured, among many other disconnected points, a reference to the 13th amendment of the Constitution as a trap door that could lead you into a room with the Unabomber.
After the Trump meeting, Lemon, visibly upset, continued to talk about West on air, saying West embarrassed African-Americans who were "cringing" while watching him "being used by the President of the United States." Lemon went to say that West "needs help. He needs to back away from the cameras. If anyone around him cares about him...the family, his managers…they need to grab him and snatch him up...because Kanye needs help. ….Back away from the cameras. Go get some help… Make sense."
This particular critique goes on at great length about mental health stigma and its deleterious effects. But it's clearly a partisan article. One sentence shows how tricky this gets: “But exploiting his medical treatment for mental health issues to declare him unworthy of being heard, or being incapable of cogent thought, is grotesque.”
On the original panel where Setmayer brings up West’s psychiatric hospitalization, she is clearly saying that she has observed West as being incapable of coherent thought. Then she brings up his mental health history as an explanation. It is his observable incapacity for rational thought that is being used to say he is unworthy of being heard (now), not that he was once hospitalized. The hospitalization is mentioned to bolster her argument that West is unhinged.
So, what are the relevant facts about mental illness?
It is true that there is a real problem with the stigmatization of mental illness. A diagnosis of mental illness can have damaging effects on your employment opportunities, housing, medical care, even your relationship options. Stigma also can lead individuals to avoid mental health care.
Did Lemon and the other commentators on CNN stigmatize West? The charge seems politicized. Yes, they could have been more careful. They highlighted his irrational, disorganized behavior, which is legitimate and in and of itself is not stigmatizing. However, the fact that he had been hospitalized was not relevant and should not have been mentioned. Did talking about it contribute to the stigmatization that patients with mental illness suffer? I think that's a tough argument to defend. The facts actually demonstrate that his medical history did not hold him back. After all, he's meeting with the President.
Journalists always need to take care when they talk about mental illness including in reference to public figures. However, it is equally important not to trivialize the concept of stigma by using it as a weapon in partisan arguments. For real information on mental illness and stigma, check out the resources at Bring Change to Mind.
Does a history of hospitalization for mental illness or a diagnosis of mental illness disqualify you for anything or invalidate your opinions?
Absolutely not. The issue isn’t that West was hospitalized and Setmeyer made a mistake to mention that. Rather, the issue is whether or not he has been behaving and speaking rationally and coherently. It is reasonable to argue that someone cannot be a useful spokesperson or advocate if they are not thinking straight.
Having a diagnosis of a mental illness does not disqualify you from doing anything. One has only to look to Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill both of whom appear to have suffered from significant affective disorders at different times in their lives yet were superlative leaders. But being actively confused and disorganized, as West seemed to most observers to be, means that you should seek help. And that it is fair for people to question the legitimacy of your statements and behavior.
The important distinction between a mental health diagnosis and being in an active episode of illness
Many mental disorders are episodic with periods of active symptomatology interspersed with periods of normalcy. In the best of circumstances, treatment puts symptoms into remission. This means that you can have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, for example, but only have occasional periods of time when you have active symptoms of depression or mania. If you get the disease under control you may never have active periods of illness. But you still have bipolar disorder. You are wise to accept that fact and do two things: one, take care of yourself in a way that minimizes recurrences and two, know the warning signs that you are heading towards or in an episode of illness. At that point, you need to get help adjusting your treatment regimen and, well, not go on television or make major decisions or speeches.