Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

The Madness of Framing Britney Spears

I didn’t know quite what to expect from the newly released documentary, Framing Britney Spears. It is the story of Princess of Pop, gone mad.

But it is not just a story about a little girl from Mississippi whose talents launched her into the stratosphere at a young age only to crash and burn in the most public of ways. Yes, her journey grew fraught due to mental health issues. But the madness in this story is not just hers. It is also ours. Let’s work our way back.

1. Britney Spears is living in a conservatorship.conservatorship is a court-ordered arrangement whereby an individual (the conservator) is appointed to handle the financial and/or daily life affairs of a conservatee (an adult) who is deemed mentally incompetent. Framing Britney Spears focuses on the fact that following Britney’s very public unraveling in 2008, the court appointed her father and a lawyer as Britney’s conservators. While conservatorships are most often used in the case of older adults or adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, they can be used in the case of serious mental illness when it is determined that someone does not have the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf.

2. The Free Britney Movement. Led by an increasingly vocal fan base that is advocating for the restoration of Britney’s rights, the #FreeBritneyMovement believes that Spears is being unfairly treated and exploited. Unfortunately, losing one’s rights due to mental illness is an all-too-common story. Consider practices around the world of involuntary hospitalization, incarceration, and prohibition on marriage due to mental illness. There is no doubt that serious mental illness can impair a person’s judgment and increase imminent risk to self and others such that temporary loss of rights may be defensible. But… individual rights are violated far too often for people with mental illness. This is its own form of madness.

3. The Paparazzi could never get enough. A most hideous form of madness rests with the media. The tabloids were relentless in their criticism of the pop star’s mental health and her competence as a mother. Framing Britney Spears is replete with documentary footage of paparazzi swarming her car and blocking her every step as she attempted to move anywhere in public. When asked why they didn’t stop, one reporter said she never asked them to stop. That was immediately after documentary footage of Britney asking them to stop. When challenged, he laughs and implies that she didn’t really want them to stop. At the risk of hyperbole, it felt like we were watching a form of gang rape and then hearing a perpetrator absolve himself and claim that the victim was asking for it somehow. When someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, what they need from the community is the opposite of what the media delivered for Britney.

4. What was Britney’s mental health condition? I don’t know what I don’t know. What I do know is that Britney was 22 years old when she got married. A year later, she gave birth to her first son. A year later she gave birth to her second son. A year later her marriage fell apart. She then lost custody of her kids due to purported mood disturbances, erratic behavior, and substance abuse. It has been asserted that Britney suffered from perinatal depression (also called postpartum depression). It is estimated that as many as one in seven women experience perinatal depression, and for roughly half of women diagnosed with perinatal depression, it is their first episode of depression. This is a treatable condition, and it is maddening that so many women are vilified for a mental health condition that is as real and as serious as many others that would prompt friends to rally round in support.

5. Getting the right help matters. Psychological help. Legal help. Community help. It seems to me, Spears has had serious trouble getting the help she needed on all these levels, and that is once again, maddening. Getting the right help is hard. We’ve all known people who have struggled to make that happen for themselves or loved ones. When it comes to mental health services, we had shortages in care before the pandemic. It’s worse now. And Spears’ story brings home the truth that it’s not simply a matter of money. Within the world of mental health, improving media coverage, increasing public understanding, and expanding funding for professional services are urgent.

This story is one of madness, and I am not talking about Britney. Yes, her mental health is central to the story, but the way in which the media and the tabloids turned her life into a circus is maddening. The way in which her mental health needs were represented is maddening. The way in which she was stripped of her rights is maddening. Our collective failure to deliver the right help to someone in need so that she could retain her rights and dignity is maddening. #TimeToDoBetter.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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