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Mental Illness as Spectator Sport

mspencers Icon Posted by Miranda Spencer

February 25th, 2008

“COMMIT HER!” screeched the tabloid headline from the news rack as I trotted to catch my train today. Guess who? By now, it’s hard not to have heard that pop star Britney Spears recently lost custody of her two toddlers, came “unglued,” and was carted off to a hospital psychiatric ward — not once but twice. Since then, it’s hard to avoid her every “bizarre” move, and the efforts to “save” or “control” her. The newsstands and entertainment programs are all Britney, all the time.

For a long time I figured hey, this is what the gossip rags and TV shows do. But when the venerable New York Times Week in Review a few weeks back catalogued a year of celebrity “train wrecks,” I started to get annoyed. Now it’s OK for serious news outlets to indulge in schadenfreude over famous folks’ misery? At this point, with Spears suspected to suffer from manic-depressive illness, I’m ready to join YouTube’s Chris Crocker in screaming, “Leave her alone!!!!!”

But it’s not so much Britney I’m concerned about. It’s the continued stigma of mental illness. Somehow, when someone famous – particularly a well known “bad girl” – suffers from it, be it alcoholism or anorexia nervosa, it’s OK to point, stare, and curl one’s lip. The media need to be reminded that if celebrities display emotional problems, it might not be just another way to get attention.

Rather, these episodes bring an opportunity for public education on, and de-stigmatization of, mental health issues. Clearly, personal crises can unravel even someone popular and successful. After all, mental health problems are all too common – especially in females.

According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill:

• 10 million Americans suffer from bipolar disorder (in equal numbers of men and women)
• 5% to 8% of adults suffer from major depression – and it is two times more common in women.
• 0.5% to 1% of women in the United States have anorexia. And some 2% to 3% have bulimia.
• 2% to 5% of Americans suffer from panic disorder (frequent anxiety attacks)

And according to the American Association of Suicidology,

• The suicide rate for women is 4.6%, or 18.8 individuals per day

As you can see, any of us might be a Britney, or know someone who is. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to write this post is that I am currently suffering from a bout of clinical depression, brought on, in part, by a period of chronic pain (now much improved – but please read WIMN’s Paula Kamen if you doubt that it can make you “mad”). The only difference is that I and others like me are not breaking down in the public eye. Someone’s fame shouldn’t give the media a free pass to exploit someone suffering from a valid medical issue — which is what mental health problems are.

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