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I don’t know anything about Amanda Bynes’ mental state, and neither do you.
Former child star Amanda Bynes hasn’t been having a good month. After being arrested for DUI in California, Bynes left her family and made her way to New York City, where she’s attempted to shoplift clothing twice, which she claims was a “misunderstanding.”
Bynes also gave an interview to In Touch magazine in which she apparently said that she believes there’s a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts. She later made a series of tweets claiming that the interview was fake and that she will sue the magazine for calling her “insane.” Celebrity gossip websites have, of course, taken this story and run with it, speculating about Bynes’ mental health and diagnoses and treating the situation like a spectator sport.
Even if Bynes really did tell In Touch that she believes she has a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to call her “insane” or “crazy,” and I’m not surprised she’s angry about it. Words like that don’t just mean “displaying symptoms of a mental illness.” They connote ridicule, ignorance, and sometimes even hate.
They also place people with mental illnesses in a category apart from the rest of us, the ones who aren’t “crazy.” In fact, mental illnesses exist on a spectrum. Some people have a a few hallucinations or delusions during a time of extreme stress (or perhaps sleep deprivation). For others, psychotic symptoms are a struggle they must manage for their entire lives.
Are all of these people “crazy?” Is everyone who has ever had a random and totally irrational thought “crazy?” Is everyone who takes medication for anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder “crazy?” Words like “crazy” and “insane” do not refer to any specific set or level of symptoms. They refer to someone we wish to hurt, ostracize, or laugh at.
How do you report a story like Bynes’ without perpetuating the stigma that people with mental illnesses face?
For starters, recognize that some things are newsworthy whether the person who did them is a celebrity or not; others are newsworthy only when they’re done by someone we’re already paying attention to—or used to pay attention to. People get DUIs and shoplift all the time, but when a famous person does it, that suddenly becomes a reason to write an entire news story. Someone having delusions is also not in and of itself interesting to the public—although, in a way, I wish it were, because maybe then people would know more about it and stigmatize those who struggle with it less.
Obviously, journalists have to make money. Sometimes that means writing stuff that sells, whether or not you personally think that this information is important to collect and provide to the public. However, oftentimes journalists—especially those who cover celeb news—shrug off all responsibility for choosing their subject matter by claiming that it’s “just what sells” or “what the people want.”
I think that it’s more of a chicken-or-egg thing than people realize. People take their cues about what they should care about and be interested in from others. Seeing tabloids full of stories about Bynes’ unconfirmed but alleged mental health troubles sends the message that this is something that’s relevant to us and that we should want to know about. Perhaps the supply helps create the demand. Maybe the world doesn’t actually need additional stories about Amanda Bynes right now.
It’s unrealistic to expect tabloid writers to actually leave Bynes alone, but maybe there are ways for them to minimize harm. For instance, it’s always a good idea, no matter what publication you’re writing for, to avoid speculating about someone’s diagnosis. This isn’t a “two sides to every story” situation. Either someone has a confirmed diagnosis that they or someone close to them is willing to share with the press, or they do not. If they do not, it’s irresponsible and unethical to quote uninformed “sources” claiming that they do.
It’s also a good idea to avoid stigmatizing (and vague) words like “crazy,” “insane,” “psycho,” “mental,” “nutcase,” and the rest of that colorful vocabulary. Theoretically, we’re all grown-ups now and should have long grown out of hurling insults at each other without provocation. A professional publication is not the place for that, even if it exclusively covers celebrity gossip.
While using inflammatory language isn’t helpful, neither is brushing off potential mental health issues as “normal” or “not a big deal.” They’re concerning, and people should be concerned. But there’s a difference between expressing concern out of actual concern and expressing concern out of a desire to seem superior. Some of this comes down to tone, which can be difficult to express and read on the internet. But while it’s difficult, it’s not impossible. “It’s the internet” shouldn’t be an excuse for journalists and commentators to discuss a grown woman’s behavior as though she is a child in need of a nap and then claim they weren’t trying to be condescending.
Here’s the thing: Comments like “Wow, she seriously needs some help” or “She’s a danger to herself!” are not going to help anyone pursue treatment. They’re going to make people feel scared, ashamed, and alone, none of which helps motivate the sometimes difficult, not always successful process of getting help. Imagine if a friend said to you, “Dude, you seriously need to check yourself in to a psych ward.” Now imagine if instead they said, “Hey, I’m worried about you. What’s going on?”
The lack of compassion in these articles makes me think that, as much as we may “care” about what celebrities do and what’s going on in their lives, we don’t care enough to actually worry rather than shrug or gleefully watch. We certainly don’t care enough to give them any privacy while they sort out personal issues.
On that note, it’s interesting how much of Bynes’ “breakdown” or “scandal” or whatever tabloids want to call it seems to center around the tabloids and the paparazzi themselves. This week, she reportedly attacked a woman who continued taking photos of her after Bynes repeatedly asked her to stop. Bynes’ response to the In Touch story, too, expressed anger that the magazine was calling her “insane.” Her threat (whether credible or not) to sue these tabloids suggests that she’s tired of being written about in such a disparaging way. At this point, who wouldn’t be?
Delusions like the ones Bynes reportedly has often involve feelings of being watched, stalked, or controlled in some way. It wouldn’t surprise me if the people following Bynes around trying to take photos of her or interview her are actually exacerbating whatever she’s dealing with.
Here’s one final suggestion for anyone covering confirmed or alleged mental illness, whether it’s the New York Times or In Touch: include a brief note at the end that says something like, “Mental illness is a real, serious health issue. If you think you may have one, please talk to a doctor or counselor. If you’re having thoughts of taking your own life, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.”
It’s not the sexiest thing in the world, but it can make all the difference for someone who recognizes a bit of themselves in the article.
Photo via The Heart Truth/Wikimedia Commons
Miri Mogilevsky is a social work graduate student who writes about feminism and politics. She has a B.A. in psychology and writes a blog called Brute Reason.