Mental Health Lessons From Kanye's Oval Office Meeting

A reflection on the role of diagnosis in mental health awareness.

Posted Oct 12, 2018

On Thursday October 11, 2018, statements from Kanye West's meeting with President Trump have bumped mental health questions back into the news. Once known mostly for his musical mastery with words, Kanye's proclamations have since grown to include controversial commentary from award shows to newsrooms, and now the Oval Office. In the middle of Mental Illness Awareness Week, West shared his suggestions for embedding of mental health education into schools—however, much of the media coverage has encircled his comments pertaining to diagnosis. Whether intentional or not, West's recent remarks can help us to step back, reflect, and responsibly consider our language and understanding surrounding diagnosis.

Robert Castro/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Robert Castro/Wikimedia Commons

Spoiler alert: This article isn’t going to conceptualize Kanye’s mental health concerns. Reducing the complexity of the diagnostic process for the sake of inferring a celebrity diagnosis can make the process seem simple. As "faces" of diagnoses appear in the media, stereotypes can develop as well. Further, irresponsible language occurs when individuals are referred to by their diagnosis, rather than a person with a given concern (e.g. "He's Bipolar" versus "He is living with Bipolar Disorder"). 

In West's recent statements he discusses being diagnosed, or potentially misdiagnosed, with Bipolar Disorder. As noted, while it is irresponsible to confirm or deny his diagnosis, we can highlight the recognition that, unfortunately, diagnosis is not as clear as it may seem. While some diagnoses have additional assessments to corroborate the conclusion, such as the neuroimaging West referred to, many do not have this luxury. The typical diagnosis occurs based on the statements provided by an individual to his/her provider. There are several considerations in which the information reported could cause a misdiagnosis, and in many, neither the individual or provider are to blame.

Limited time combined with the pressure to diagnose in order to jumpstart treatment could cause adequate information to be shared. In a short time, rapport may not be sufficiently developed for an individual to be forthcoming. Additionally, individuals may be fearful of the consequences of a diagnosis and may minimize the information provided. On the other hand, even if an individual is comfortable and willing to share, he or she may not know what is essential to report and may unknowingly omit crucial data. 

Earlier this year, Kanye West shared that while he doesn't view therapists as bad, therapy can be more of a crash course in understanding who you are, while loved ones may know you better.  While providers may have insufficient time to fully conceptualize, depending on the clinical context, the diagnostic process could be assisted by having statements provided from loved ones. For example, while a teenager may struggle to describe the history of his or her current concerns, a guardian may be able to provide clarifying information that can help to conclude a diagnosis. 

Diagnoses can be helpful in understanding the current concern, and subsequently determining the appropriate treatment methods. However, if a misdiagnosis occurs all is not lost. While an incorrect diagnosis may be upsetting, it does not erase an individual's willingness to seek help, discuss current concerns, and engage in the treatment process.