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What defenders of Herschel Walker and Ye get wrong about mental illness

Mental health struggles don't excuse men threatening or stalking women.
Photo illustration: Kanye West and Herschel Walker
Supporters of Herschel Walker and Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) have been attributing some of their indefensible behavior to their reported mental health issues.MSNBC / Getty Images

Over the last 10 days we’ve seen two prominent men (or their friends or supporters) chalking up their terrible behavior to mental health struggles. First, Herschel Walker, Georgia's Republican nominee for Senate who debates Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock Friday, released an ad that attributed his reportedly violent behavior toward women to his “real battle with mental health” before saying “by the Grace of God, I’ve overcome it.”

We’ve seen two prominent men (or their friends or supporters) chalking up their terrible behavior to mental health struggles.

Then, on Saturday, Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, tweeted that he planned to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” a mistype of the term DEFCON 3. That led to him being locked out of his Twitter account. Ye’s tweet came after he had said that former Trump administration official Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, brokered the Abraham Accords for profit and after he said that Jews controlled hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs. Of course, those tweets were posted after he and right-wing provocateur Candace Owens appeared at a fashion show wearing shirts that read “White Lives Matter.”

Republicans have been all too willing to make excuses for the former University of Georgia running back. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who famously carried on an affair while he zealously pursued Bill Clinton’s impeachment, said Walker “went through a long tough period, he had a lot of concussions coming out of football.”

Similarly, whenever Ye does or says the inexcusable, his defenders immediately rush to his reported bipolar disorder. Already, people claiming to be his friends are telling gossip sheets that he is suffering from a mental health break.

Walker’s ad doesn’t address the reports that he paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion despite his support for banning abortions with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. Rather, his advertisement throws back Democratic nominee Raphael Warnock’s profession as a minister at him and puts the onus on him to say “he doesn’t believe in redemption.” All the while, his son Christian has criticized him for not being a “family man” and leaving “to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from your violence.”

(For what it’s worth, if my memory from my years at Christian school serves me correctly, redemption is between a human being and God, requires the person to take full accountability for their actions, but doesn’t entitle them to a Senate seat).

Similarly, Ye relentlessly tormented, stalked and harassed his ex-wife’s former partner Pete Davidson, going as far as to bury him alive in a video. During their marriage, Kardashian asked the press and the public for “the compassion and empathy that is needed.” This call came after he held a rally in South Carolina where he said Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves, she just had them work for other white people.”

Ye’s words and actions cannot be called anything but pure antisemitism.

Ye’s words and actions cannot be called anything but pure antisemitism. As the American Jewish Committee noted, Ye’s words are rooted in old antisemitic trops that Jews are greedy connivers who control politics and the media for monetary profit.

Nobody is denying that Walker and West have had mental health struggles. In Walker’s case, he’s talked about having dissociative personality disorder. But far too often, both West and Walker as well as their critics mention their mental health as a caveat to their behavior as a means to absolve them of their actions.

The language feels similar to how Republicans ignore the lethality of guns and easy access to them whenever there is a mass shooting and focus on what they often assume is a mental health issue with the shooter.

In the same way, solely zeroing-in on Ye and Walker’s mental health absolves them of any personal responsibility. While mental health can cause erratic behavior that can even be harmful to others, it does not excuse that behavior, and it certainly isn’t an excuse for antisemitism or acts of flat-out racism.

Studies have shown that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than they are to commit acts of violence, and that when adults with mental illness do commit acts of violence, they are more likely to report instances of victimization and perpetration.

Eric Elbogen, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Duke University, has said that “there is a link between mental health and violence,” but that “most people with severe mental illness are not violent” and that many times other risk factors influence their behavior.

Studies have shown that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than they are to commit acts of violence.

“So, it may not be mental illness that is driving the violence at all, but rather factors like having been abused as a child, being unemployed, or living in a high-crime neighborhood,” Elbogen has said. But laying Walker and Ye’s actions at the feet of mental health only furthers the stigma about mental health; it causes people to fear those with mental illness, since they associate it with terrible displays like Ye and Walker’s.

But these types of discussions are far more nuanced; therefore, they are more difficult to discuss on social media or to fully unpack in a political ad. Simply slapping a “mental health” label doesn’t force people to be accountable for their actions and doesn’t help people with mental illness find the real solutions they need.