Mental Health Stereotypes Destroyed Britney Spears, And They Affect You, Too

As someone with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and ADHD, I have always been worried about mentioning these diagnoses at work, in relationships, and with family. The supposed implications of how I’ll act boil down to these: ADHD will result in a lack of focus, bipolar disorder will make me moody, and anxiety will cause me to panic under pressure. None of this is true, and I’m lucky to have a job at She’s a Full On Monet that embraces my differences. stereotypes

 
 
 
 
 
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But in the past, I’ve bitten my tongue, afraid to be honest. Mental health stereotypes are extremely harmful, regularly suggesting that those with mental illnesses are incompetent and incapable — or even dangerous. The media is hugely responsible for this, regularly reporting on supposed struggles, latching onto hot gossip from anonymous sources about poor mental health. That shaming is horrible, yet it sells, so the cycle continues.

I am now very open about my mental health, and I hope to help others by being so. Mental illness is just like any other invisible illness, and it’s time we all view it that way. stereotypes

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The Stigma of Mental Illness

 
 
 
 
 
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The main reason people don’t talk about mental illness: the stigma surrounding it. NAMI reports that one in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year, with one in 20 experiencing serious mental illness. And it’s not just adults – youth ages 6-17 also experience mental health disorders. stereotypes

However, getting help for these mental illnesses can be difficult. Admitting you have a problem is stressful enough. Knowing that something is “wrong” with you is scary, and many live in denial of their struggles, convinced that they can “fix” these problems — as if mental illness indicates that a person is “broken.” stereotypes

 

 

 

 

I lived with shame for years. I knew I was depressed, so I scheduled an appointment with my college’s counseling department. I attended one session, which was helpful. But each time a new session came around, I’d put it off and reschedule it. My mom, whom I consider my best friend, didn’t even know about it until she saw a card with an appointment reminder. (I didn’t go to that appointment, either.) stereotypes

Getting help can be even harder for men, thanks to toxic masculinity. Flippant remarks in response to men’s emotions, like “man up” and  “don’t cry like a girl,” only further the notion that their emotions are embarrassing, and they should be bottled up. The APA reports that men are far less likely to get help than women. stereotypes

 
 
 
 
 
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And then there are those who feel that they have a good life, and therefore have no right to be depressed. They see themselves as functioning, even successful, and emotions that don’t align with that are buried. I remember thinking to myself the typical (and problematic) “there are people starving in Africa.” Despite the fact that one’s struggles are valid, comparisons to others can inhibit people from getting the help that they need. stereotypes

 

 

 

 


The Media and Mental Illness

In a study by Kalpana S., Chaudhury S., Bhat P.S., and Mujawar S., discussed in a study that “the media contribute to mental illness stigma through the exaggerated, inaccurate, and comical images they use to portray persons with psychiatric disorders.” They explained the effects of cultivation theory and social learning theory.

Cultivation theory suggests that those who engage regularly with virtual media “perceive the ‘real world’ as per the imagery, principles, and portrayals depicted on the small screen.” Social learning theory “suggests that learning is achieved not only through direct experience but also through observation.”

Summarized: the media does not help when it comes to understanding mental illness. It tends to exaggerate symptoms, blast celebrities who struggle, and embarrass those who own their illness.

An example of this: Britney Spears. After experiencing a completely justified mental health crisis in 2008, she was put under conservatorship, with her lawyer and father taking the reins on her life. The media went wild, posting unflattering photos and branding it her “infamous breakdown.” And to this day – 13 years later – she is still fighting to have personal autonomy. Framing Britney Spears recently came out, and Spears admitted that she couldn’t bring herself to watch it, as she was “embarrassed by the light they put [her] in” and “cried for two weeks.”

 
 
 
 
 
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Amanda Bynes was also humiliated for her display of mental illness in 2013. Admitting on Twitter that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she sent a flurry of tweets, blasting family members and celebrities, with a tweet about Drake going viral. She was also arrested on drug charges and driving with a suspended license. Addiction paired with mental illness is a dangerous combination. Bynes admitted to Paper Magazine in 2018 that she was “really ashamed and embarrassed” by her mental break, and that “it truly eats away at [her].

It was an outward display of mental illness, and, as many with bipolar disorder know, it’s hard to control when not handled properly

And while it was appropriate for her to apologize and right her wrongs, it begs the question: why was the media so obsessed with someone clearly struggling, only writing about her “drug-induced meltdown timeline” and “latest antics?” Where was the olive branch? Instead, paparazzi took photos of her disheveled wig, screenshotting and sharing her manic tweets. You would never make a joke about someone’s thin frame or bald head while they were battling cancer — so what makes it okay to crack a joke regarding a mentally ill person’s appearance?

Most recently, Kanye West has been in the media due to his struggles with bipolar disorder. His failed bid for President was launched on a story about how he and Kim Kardashian almost aborted their daughter, North. He went on rampages on Twitter, claiming that Kris Jenner (or, as he has referred to her, Kris Jong Un) and his estranged wife were white supremacists.

While Kardashian West has filed for divorce from West, she has also been incredibly understanding, defending her estranged husband’s bipolar disorder as part of his “genius.” She also expressed the need for empathy, saying “Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand.”

The media, on the other hand, has run in the opposite direction of giving West the benefit of the doubt. One article lists all of West’s “public breakdowns” — as if they had prepared for this exact moment. Another article was created solely on what Snoop Dogg said about Kanye West: a tweet calling West a “weird motherf*cker” and asking “what the fuck is he on?” as if mental illness is equated to being on drugs. Again: where is the hope of understanding if sound bites and tweets are what receive clicks?


How to Support Those with a Mental Illness

The best thing you can do to support a friend with a mental illness: don’t assume anything. That means no guessing about moods, blaming actions on the illness, or negatively implying that someone’s head isn’t in the right place. 

Instead, ask questions about where they’re at, then ask how you can help. Do not push for answers or intel – mental illness is a private matter, and they may not feel entirely comfortable with telling you everything you want to know. Know when to ask, and know when to stop pushing.

 
 
 
 
 
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If your friend admits that they are struggling, then it’s time to make sure they’re receiving adequate support. See if they’re reaching out to a therapist and/or taking medication consistently, and offer to reach out to someone who can help them (like a family member).  

Finally, be present. Let them talk. If they don’t want to talk, sit with them in silence. Your presence is appreciated, even if they don’t say that outright. Most importantly: leave the toxic positivity at home. “Buck up” and “snap out of it” will not help — in fact, this cliché positivity may push your friend away from you entirely. Listen. Be there. Don’t judge.

 
 
 
 
 
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Overall, mental illness is not what the media portrays. It’s complicated, not black and white. There is no sudden breakdown, just little actions that add up. On behalf of us all, please, just be gentle.

How do you view the media’s perception of mental illness? What can it do better? Let us know in the comments.


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