Stop Trying to Interpret Britney Spears’s Mental Health
The reaction to Britney's recent behavior and struggles with bipolar disorder lack sensitivity.
I’ll admit, when I heard that Britney Spears had recently been filmed at an LA restaurant during a “manic” episode recently, I was curious as to the intensity of the incident. As someone with a broad family history of mental illness — my grandmother and sister have severe bipolar, and I myself suffer from depression — I wanted to see how manic behavior was portrayed in the news.
I watched the clip. Thousands of us have. In it, I saw a woman who was cheerfully chatting to a waiter, but clearly annoyed that some rando was filming her at the end of her meal. Her tone was high, but the “Overprotected” singer has a naturally high-pitched voice in her everyday speech.
Spears wasn’t talking gibberish, either; whatever she was saying was inaudible and distorted over the sounds of the busy restaurant.
It’s since been debunked — by Spears, her husband Sam Asghari, and staff at JOEY’S Woodland Hills — that what went down in that moment was a bipolar relapse. However, it was hardly the first time Spears’s behavior has been overanalyzed in the context of her mental health.
The mental health of Spears has been analyzed and advertised for almost as long as she’s been a pop star. She’s recalled periods of intense anxiety during her career, and even allegations of abuse during her 13-year conservatorship, which have clearly impacted her mental wellness.
Spears famously made headlines in 2007 after shaving her head, accosting paparazzi with an umbrella, and exhibiting more “crazy behavior” that deviated away from her perfect pop princess persona. What she most likely endured, however, was the start of her acute (and possibly untreated or under-treated) bipolar disorder.
“I feel frustrated and saddened by the way that the media handles mental health crises and stereotypes,” states Jenny Chandler, a registered associate marriage and family therapist. “The most vulnerable, painful moments of a mental health crisis are shown over and over again for shock value… and there is a resounding lack of empathy or understanding.”
What a ‘manic episode’ really looks like
Like most mental health conditions, there are various levels of how Bipolar Disorder presents itself in those who live with it. The National Institute of Mental Health categorizes Bipolar I by “manic episodes that last at least 7 days … with depressive episodes typically lasting at least 2 weeks.” Bipolar II presents similarly but with less severe episodes.
To get a better understanding of how manic behavior usually presents itself, we spoke with Dr. Carolina Estevez, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist at Infinite Recovery rehabilitation center in Austin, TX.
“Mania is characterized by feelings of elation and euphoria, an increase in energy levels, restlessness, racing thoughts, decreased need for sleep, and concentration issues,” Dr. Estevez explains. “The person may also have grandiose ideas about themselves or their capabilities and engage in risky behaviors or activities that could potentially harm them.”
How to support someone during these times
It can be confusing, uncomfortable, and uneasy to see someone, especially a loved one, undergoing a manic episode. But Dr. Estevez offers some practical advice that can be applied to most instances.
“Stay calm and approach the person in a non-judgmental manner,” she advises. “Ask them how they are feeling, what their thoughts are, and if there’s anything you can do to help. Listening attentively and compassionately is very important in these situations. It may also be helpful to suggest grounding activities, like going for a walk or painting.”
If you believe someone you know is undergoing a manic episode that could potentially endanger them or others around them, it’s time to reach out for help. “Sometimes, when a person has severe mania, they may not have the judgment to realize that they need emergency psychiatric help and 24-hour supervision,” Dr. Estevez adds.
This includes contacting mental health support helplines, like the 988 crisis hotline, or even the person’s therapist or doctor, if you have their contact information.
Avoid calling the police unless it’s a true emergency situation; while it might seem like the obvious choice, police officers are not necessarily able to provide proper handling and treatment of someone who is mentally ill. In most cases, the person will be sent to the nearest hospital (not necessarily their regular treatment center), and in some cases, getting the police involved has lead to unnecessary and deadly altercations due to a lack of training in this area.
Understanding the condition
It’s not like Spears suffers alone, however. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million adult Americans. Selena Gomez is one of them. Demi Lovato is another, too. Kanye West has also been linked to the condition. We only know this because those celebrities have come forth and discussed their conditions in an effort to promote more acceptance and understanding on the subject.
This is why it’s such a disruption when non-qualified people throw around terms like “manic”; it not only promotes negative stereotypes about living with mental illness but it also encourages others to view bipolar people as somehow less-than-able-to-function in society, regardless of their treatment plans.
“There has been a lack of empathy and support surrounding the incident involving Britney Spears,” Dr. Estevez adds. “People have been quick to label her as ‘crazy’ or ‘unstable’ without taking into account the mental health struggles she may be going through. It’s important to remember that everyone deserves respect and compassion, regardless of their history or diagnosis.”
“People with Bipolar Disorder face painful stereotypes about their worth, ability, and level of functioning,” adds Chandler. “Fulfilling, healthy relationships and successful careers are absolutely possible, and are a cornerstone of recovery for many.”
I know Britney Spears is just trying to live her best life, and I know that living under the microscope is detrimental to her healing process. I hope her responses and the support of others allows people to understand that mental health conditions are not just terms to throw around to sensationalize headlines, but words others need to recognize as part of life.
If you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.