The #FreeBritney Movement is Gaslighting Us About Mental Health

The vilification of the behavioral health medical community by the #FreeBritney movement cannot have come at a worse time for our country as mental health emergencies skyrocket in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic.

I’ll say it clearly. You may cancel me for this, but I am going to say it anyway.

The #FreeBritney movement is doing far more harm than good to the mental health community. And it needs to stop.

Many bad actors are using the #FreeBritney movement to demonize psychiatric professionals. Many people struggling with mental health problems depend on medication to function, and the #FreeBritney movement appears to be spreading horror stories about necessary life-saving therapies. These same “activists” are using the #FreeBritney” platform to target mental health doctors, spread conspiracy theories about caretakers for people with severe mental health issues and to smear psychiatrists as some part of an evil conspiracy.

And this needs to stop.

It is difficult to write about this issue because it is so muddy. The #FreeBritney movement likes to pretend the issues are clear-cut: Britney Spears is a functioning adult who has been trapped against her will in a conservatorship where she cannot talk, think, act, or do anything for herself. She is in prison and the person holding the keys is her evil father, Jamie Spears.

In reality the issues are not clear-cut. Yes, Jamie Spears is a man who has a bad track record when it comes to his daughter Britney Spears. Jamie Spears has even endangered Britney’s son Sean Preston, according to a complaint by Preston’s father Kevin Federline. Yes, the system of conservatorship in the US is flawed at best, ripe for predatory actors to take financial advantage of vulnerable adults. Often these vulnerable adults tend to be elderly and can be manipulated by state-appointed guardians. Britney Spears, being a younger woman and a celebrity, is a very unusual case.

What cannot be ignored, however, is that Britney Spears is a very sick woman. She has a lot of severe mental health problems, none of which are curable. Spears’ mental illnesses can only be handled with treatment for the rest of her life. It is a terrible situation for any person to accept about herself, whether she be beautiful and famous or humdrum and poor.

I have read the full transcript of Britney Spears’ testimony that she gave to a judge overseeing her conservatorship case on Thursday, June 24. A lot of stupid opinions have been written about that testimony. Virginia Heffernan wrote a bizarre slobbering column in the Los Angeles Times calling Britney Spears’ testimony “poetic” (it wasn’t) and stating that the statement was “a woman’s plea for human rights.” Stand aside Malala Yousafzai! Britney talking about being unable to get her hair and nails done during the pandemic is the new oppression for women!

In reality, none of these assessments about Britney Spears’ courtroom testimony are true. Spears’ testimony appeared to be the words of a woman battling mental illness. Her statement is a mixture of valid complaints, misleading characterizations about her state of health, and some downright delusions. Britney Spears is a woman who has been abused by so many bad actors in her life, whether it be her father Jamie Spears, her con man groomer Sam Lufti (who is a huge proponent of the #FreeBritney movement) or the news media in general who sexualized Britney Spears from the age of fifteen and harassed her to complete mental ruin.

There are simply no good guys in the whole situation involving Britney Spears’ conservatorship. As one Twitter commentator put it “Just because her dad is a POS doesn’t mean she’s mentally well.” Britney’s father should not be her conservator considering his abusive past, but I see no indication that Spears is healthy enough to run her estate. Her conservatorship should be given to a trusted and well-vetted person who would have Spears’ best interests in mind.

Why do I believe Spears isn’t healthy enough to be released from conservatorship? I read her testimony and the layers of paranoia it contained were very concerning. A common symptom of someone having a mental health emergency is paranoia. A person suffering from paranoid psychoses will often portray herself as the victim and every other person- the doctors, the friends, the caretakers, the police- as an enemy working to destroy her. When I read Britney Spears’ testimony, I unfortunately saw a great deal of similarity between what she described and what a person suffering a mental health crisis would describe when pushing against the people trying to help her.

Let’s examine her testimony, some of which involved valid complaints (Britney Spears being forced to dance in shows when she did not wish to and being forced to attend therapy in exposed places where she could be harassed by paparazzi) and some of which sounded like very one-sided accounts where Spears tried to downplay a mental health crisis she may have suffered.

This absolutely sounds like a story where there is another side. Spears downplays what appears to have been a mental health breakdown on her part (“I can say no to a dance move.”) … and apparently her breakdown was so bad that her management, dancers and “assistant of the new people” had to leave the room for 45 minutes.

Notice also in this same passage that Britney Spears does not exactly deny that she wasn’t taking her medication. Stopping medication is a SERIOUS problem for someone with severe mental health issues. “I never agreed to take my medication, which with my medication is only taken in the mornings never at rehearsal,” she says. “They don’t even see me. So why were they even claiming that?” Later Spears says “I’ve had the same lady, every morning for the past eight years, give me my same medication, and I’m nowhere near these group of people.” Odd that she doesn’t say “I’ve taken the same medication every morning for eight years.” She says that her manager wouldn’t know if she had taken the medication because only one person gives it to her every morning. It’s a bizarre dodge.

Spears never actually comes out with a reassurance that she was indeed continuing to take her medications during this entire time. Medications for bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and other psychopathologies often make the difference between healthy lives and homelessness for many mental health patients. Stopping medications can mean disaster for mental health patients unless it’s done under the supervision of a doctor.

Britney Spears continues, throughout her testimony, to show that she is not exactly a reliable narrator when it comes to describing her current health state. At one point she states that she had to give “eight gallons of blood a week” (physically impossible), calls her IUD an “ID” and gives very wobbly accounts of her medical state that are extremely one-sided and somewhat disjointed. She accuses a “Dr. Benson”- who “died legally”- of abusing her. She offers no proof of this and the man is now deceased so he cannot defend himself. Britney also describes thanking God when she found out he died, giving no thought as to how his family would feel upon hearing a major pop star delight publicly in his death.

Spears then goes on to describe how horrible rehab was for her, a common complaint from people who have to go to rehab. Rehab, contrary to stereotype, is not like a spa. It is a grueling experience meant to reverse a disastrous direction a person’s life may have taken. Spears describes having to “work” for “10 hours a day, seven days a week, no days off.” She doesn’t describe what exactly this “work” is. Later she gives a hint. “(S)itting in a chair 10 hours a day, seven days a week, it ain’t fun.” The fact that Spears doesn’t specify what this “work” was in rehab points to her rather rambling and paranoid state of mind. She also bizarrely compares rehab to “sex trafficking.” “I worked seven days a week no days off, which in California the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking.” No ma’am, that’s rehab. Is Spears suggesting that she had to do sex work in rehab? Or is she just adding a salacious metaphor for attention and self-pity? I suspect the latter.

Spears then honestly describes how she is still suffering from mental health problems. “I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry. It’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.” She describes being tempted to abuse substances (“I should drink alcohol”) and is clearly still mentally unwell. More disturbingly, Spears describes how she hates therapy appointments and thinks she doesn’t need them. “I don’t even believe in therapy. I always think you take it to God.” Again, that is a very dangerous position for someone suffering from severe mental health problems to take. Spears does not have mild depression. She has a severe and incurable mental illness that has caused her to endanger her children at one point, taking them hostage in a dramatic situation back in January 2008. The fact that even in her public testimony Spears does not hide her lackadaisical attitude towards her medication and her therapy is a huge red flag. Spears’ only chance for a fulfilling life involves a doctor-supervised medication regimen combined with therapy. If Spears had stuck to her medication and therapy appointments and had demonstrated that she was capable of autonomy the judge would look more favorably upon ending her conservatorship.

Unfortunately what is happening now is that the #FreeBritney movement has immediately raised Spears’ disjointed and paranoid testimony as the clear gospel truth of mental health care in America. Doctors, caretakers, behavioral health nurses and therapists are all now being smeared as abusers in the #FreeBritney movement. Psychiatric medications and therapies are being seen as brainwashing. The vilification of the behavioral health medical community by the #FreeBritney movement cannot have come at a worse time for our country as mental health emergencies skyrocket in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic. Now more than ever people need intervention as a second pandemic of mental health problems, exacerbated by lockdowns and quarantines, sweep the nation. #FreeBritney proponents like Heffernan don’t seem to care. “Spears has been essentially jailed by a battery of doctors, lawyers, coaches, therapists, directors, producers, interrogators, managers, and minders,” Heffernan huffed. “So many corrupt doctors!” actor Daniel Newman tweeted. Celebrities everywhere around the web have joined together to support Spears in ending her conservatorship, having apparently forgotten that Spears has a history of endangering children and engaging in perilous behavior when she is given autonomy.

Many celebrities including Justin Timberlake and Perez Hilton are now eating crow after having essentially treated Britney Spears insensitively during her mental health crisis in 2007–2008. Everyone is getting on board the #FreeBritney bandwagon and I am asking once again that people exercise caution. The judge in this case appears level-headed, but if the conservatorship is ended and Britney Spears is given autonomy, 2022 will end up being like 2007–2008 for Britney. We will again see Spears go off medication, have mental health emergencies, possibly need to be hospitalized, and definitely end up giving shady characters like Sam Lufti access to her finances. And frankly once again the Hollywood community who are now eagerly hashtagging #FreeBritney will have no one to blame but themselves.

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Phoebe Cohen

Phoebe Cohen

I write, I draw, I have opinions