Because society often confuses mental health issues for disabling irrationality, Britney Spears’ story resonates for many victims of stigma.
Unfortunately, Britney Spears’ mental health struggles have been treated as a joke over the last 13 years, which has only reinforced public mental health stigma and further isolated the artist.
However, the #FreeBritney movement gained traction in 2019 and shifted public perception of Spears’ ongoing conservatorship and mental health diagnosis. This shift bodes well for the state of mental health stigma in America. But issues remain.
The most recent revival of the #FreeBritney movement has also highlighted the systemic issues of ableism, stripping the civil liberties of those with disabilities, and of course, mental health.
After rising to fame in 1999, Britney Spears quickly became the “Princess of Pop”. Her music permanently changed the industry and she became an icon of the early 2000s.
In 2008, Spears experienced two breakdowns. During one, she shaved her head on camera. In another, you might remember, she hit paparazzi with an umbrella. Following these highly publicized episodes, Spears was involuntarily checked into a mental health institution to receive treatment.
Millions of people have followed Britney Spears’ mental health struggles after her multiple public breakdowns in 2008. Since then, Spears has been placed under a conservatorship overseen by her father, Jamie Spears.
A conservatorship is typically used as a last resort by the courts, and is supposed to be in an individual’s best interests. Conservatorships are used when someone is severely disabled, is at risk for financial exploitation, or is unfit to make their own decisions.
In the case of Britney Spears, the courts agreed that her mental health struggles were so severe that she should not have control over her estate or financial affairs. Britneys’ official mental health diagnosis has never been released. But her father filed to be the conservator of her affairs and estate after her hospitalizations; he felt she was unfit to make her own decisions, and argues that she hasn’t recovered her decision-making ability.
While a conservatorship might seem harmless, it has more implications than you’d expect.
Zoe Brennan-Khron, a staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Disability Rights Project described a conservatorship as “the court weighing into the person’s life and saying you, as a person with a disability, are no longer able to make decisions about yourself and livelihood — such as where you live, and how you support and feed yourself — and we are putting someone else in charge of making those decisions.”
While there is a time and place for conservatorships, Spears has been denied control of her life for over a decade. This legal measure may have been necessary at first. But even though her mental health caused the conservatorship, a loss of autonomy is known to exacerbate mental health issues. Overall, a legal block on her independence has likely hurt Britney in the long run.
She recently attempted to end the conservatorship, and her testimony only confirmed the abusive, controlling nature of her father. In just 23 minutes of testimony, Spears revealed just some ways in which the conservatorship harmed her. For instance, her conservators refused to let her remove her IUD, forced her to perform, changed her medication to Lithium without telling her, and exploited her financially.
The goal of the #FreeBritney movement is to end Britney’s conservatorship and allow her to live her life freely. Some of the most influential #FreeBritney content comes from the podcast Britney’s Gram. The hosts analyze Spears’ Instagram posts looking for coded messages in anything from her clothing to her word choice, as she also is not allowed to create social media content.
The #FreeBritney movement has been around in some form and fashion since 2008 when her conservatorship was first established. Followers have shown up in-person at hearings and done some organizing. But more recently, the movement has grown substantially through social media.
#FreeBritney has brought attention to Spears’ ongoing situation. Importantly, it has also shed light on the commonality of these issues for others with disabilities.
Despite her fame, Britney has been unable to fight obviously overreaching restrictions on how she lives her life. This should illustrate how placement under conservatorship steals one’s autonomy, often with little hope for escape. More broadly, her situation shows how easily those with mental health struggles become dehumanized.
Spears’ story plays on familiar themes for those with disabilities and those who deal with ableism, mental health stigmas, and lack of bodily autonomy as a part of their everyday lives. Additionally, the public nature of Britney’s struggle illustrates how society often incorrectly confuses mental health issues for disabling irrationality.
Of all the issues brought to light by Spears’ recent testimony, systemic ableism resonates with many regular folks. Systemic ableism is one of the most common, and scariest concerns the disabled community lives with.
Imani Barbarian, a writer and disability advocate, has said while Spears’ case is horrific it is not unique. Being placed in conservatorship is something the disabled community constantly worries about. As Barbarian has further pointed out, conservatorship “could literally happen to anybody with a mental health diagnosis or not.”
Over 1.3 million adults live in conservatorships – many on the basis of a simple diagnosis, and not an evaluation of their decision-making capacity. This is a direct reflection of ableism, where even the law dismisses individual rights out of prejudice.
One simple way we can help dismantle ableism is to recognize how little autonomy disabled and mentally “ill” individuals receive. When we acknowledge how many people live without autonomy, we acknowledge the importance of understanding this struggle.
Increased understanding can reduce gaslighting and microaggressions toward the disabled community. Public recognition validates the experiences of the thousands of non-celebrities living in similar situations to Britney’s.
Recognizing ableism also comes with recognizing the deep roots of mental health stigmas within society. According to lawyer Harry Nelson, the legal system’s outdated processes make it extremely difficult to strike the right balance between protecting those who need it while still recognizing the personal liberties of the disabled.
Along with the ever-changing definition of mental health, we need to re-evaluate our perception of competence in those struggling. Aubry Alvarez-Bakker, a board-certified behavior analyst and psychologist, has pointed out that as a society, we need to reflect on how we “presume competence — or incompetence — when it comes to those with a mental health diagnosis.”
Overall, Spears’ public struggles have created a long-overdue conversation. The way we interact and perceive the disabled community, regardless of celebrity status, matters.
Spears’ father has complete control over her medical care, including her reproductive health and wellness. Spears has two children, and during her testimony revealed she wanted to have another baby with her current partner and personal trainer. However, as her conservator, her father will not allow Spears to remove her IUD.
While this was a shocking statement, women, especially disabled women, were not surprised. Reproductive health is constantly under attack, especially for those seeking abortions. It’s important to remember, however, “the difference between a woman who has to walk through a line of protestors on her way to an abortion procedure and Britney being denied the right to remove her IUD are differences in scale, not kind.”
For more than a decade, we have followed Britney Spears’ mental health struggles. Sadly, she was not always met with the public support and empathy she is today. Even sadder, her own family still struggles to show her such empathy.
Britney’s conservatorship, family struggles, and mental health issues may resonate with individuals from all communities and backgrounds. And sometimes it can really help to use a public figure to describe your own struggles.