When it comes to reprehensible celebrity mental health coverage, the media has more than earned its reputation. From sensationalized write-ups of rehab trips and “breakdowns” to derisive headlines and invasive tactics, there’s a long history of tabloid malfeasance. Worse, articles that poke fun at people who are seemingly in crisis, reinforcing pre-existing stigmas in the process, can have serious consequences.
Britney Spears is an oft-referenced example of the horrors of a parasitic press. As a recent Guardian column recalled, “When Britney Spears shaved her head and took an umbrella to a paparazzo’s car in 2007, the events of a night turned into a circus-like spectacle gobbled up by a bloodthirsty audience. When, a few months later, she was taken into psychiatric care, photographers jostled and pushed around the ambulance, trying to snatch an image of the singer, in obvious distress, adding the flashes of their cameras to the flashing lights of the emergency vehicle.”
Some celebrities who have suffered under paparazzi surveillance and insensitive coverage have since spoken out about their experiences. A 2018 Paper magazine profile of Amanda Bynes referenced the “countless headlines over the years that attempted to put a psychological label to [Bynes]’ behavior,” with the actress saying, “It definitely isn’t fun when people diagnose you with what they think you are… If you deny anything and tell them what it actually is, they don’t believe you.”
The Guardian’s Britney Spears article went on to juxtapose those nightmarish scenes from the early aughts with responses to recent reports that Spears had chosen to check in to a mental health facility. “The messages of love and support posted by fans seem supportive and empathetic; the tabloid reports relatively muted and factual… What a difference a decade can make.”
Unfortunately, there is an abundance of evidence that undermines this apparent upward trajectory. While the tendency to make jokes about Britney Spears’ mental health or breathlessly document any signs of distress might have fallen out of fashion, her recent decision to seek treatment has turned into yet another media circus.
Conjecture that Spears may have been admitted to a treatment facility against her will fueled the #FreeBritney movement. Ultimately, Spears felt the need to return to social media to set the record straight, writing, “I wanted to say hi, because things that are being said have just gotten out of control!!! Wow!!! There’s rumors, death threats to my family and my team, and just so many things crazy things being said. I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that’s happening is just making it harder for me.” Although questions about the current state of Spears’ conservatorship still linger, it seems clear that the explosion of rumors and concern, while probably well-intentioned, was ultimately an added stressor for the star.
Bynes’ critique of overactive tabloids and armchair psychologists still holds true today. Recent examples include attempts to attribute Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande’s fast-tracked engagement to the comic’s borderline personality disorder, and constant speculation about Kanye West’s behavior in light of previous comments he’s made about being diagnosed as bipolar and rejecting psychiatric medication. As Lux Alptraum wrote for Vox, “Treating someone’s mental illness as their primary decision-maker is reductive, and fuels the notion that people are defined by, and incapable of overcoming, their diagnosis—when it’s just one part of a multifaceted identity.” She continued, “Perhaps it would be better if we stopped treating celebrities’ personal lives like a reality show, obsessing over every detail of their potentially unhealthy antics. You don’t have to have a mental illness to go on a Twitter rampage or make rash decisions about your romantic life, but if you do have such an illness, having those behaviors amped up by the media isn’t going to help.”
During his recent sit-down with David Letterman, West referenced oppressive tabloid coverage when discussing his diagnosis, saying, “You start acting erratic, as TMZ would put it.” West explained that there was a tendency to explain away his (often controversial) opinions with an “oh, he’s just crazy.” He continued, “They love to write you off. They love to cut your sentences off halfway. What you say doesn’t mean as much.” Likening his “sprained brain” to a “sprained ankle,” he opined, “If someone has a sprained ankle, you’re not gonna push on him more.” In contrast, “With us, once our brain gets to a point of spraining, people do everything to make it worse.”
West has been celebrated for speaking out about mental health issues, which affect so many but often come with a stigma that stifles honest and potentially life-saving conversation. Countless articles have cheered on the growing trend of A-list celebrities getting candid about mental health care, with headlines like “Celeb Men Are Leading A Male Mental Health Revolution.” One such article began, “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has discussed his battle with depression. Mariah Carey recently revealed she has bipolar disorder. Prince Harry said he needed counseling to deal with years of grief and anger following the death of his mother, Princess Diana. And Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds has acknowledged dealing with anxiety disorder. As the stigma surrounding mental illness has declined in recent years, so has the reluctance many have had to discuss their own mental health issues, including celebrities. It’s become the new norm for stars to divulge vulnerabilities once kept closely guarded.”
But even as think pieces praise these candid conversations, the virulent strain of coverage that treats mental illness as a punchline and rehab visits as a scandalous source of shame remains. Just recently, it was revealed that Game of Thrones star Kit Harington had checked into a “luxury rehab.” A representative for the actor told Page Six that, “Kit has decided to utilize this break in his schedule as an opportunity to spend some time at a wellness retreat to work on some personal issues.”
Putting aside the question of whether a star’s rehab stint should ever be given the breaking news treatment, the real issue here is the apparent stakeout that followed. Outlets like Page Six, TMZ, and The Daily Mail have all published updates, sharing prying photographs and monitoring the actor’s progress. The Daily Mail bragged about its “world exclusive” shots, as “Harington was seen for the first time since entering the luxury facility.” On Friday, TMZ kept readers informed about the amount of time Harington spent working out during a recent session at the facility’s gym. This outdated urge to suffocate celebrities with unwanted attention for (admirably) seeking the help they need only reinforces stigmas, and is at odds with efforts to normalize mental health treatment.
As long as celebrities receiving care risk constant surveillance, reports of an evolved, post-stigma landscape will continue to ring hollow. A world where paparazzi don’t hide out in rehab bushes might be on the horizon, but it’s not quite within reach.