You Know What We Could Be Better At? Talking About Celebrities’ Mental Health


Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

11 mins read



Earlier this week, culinary historian and author Michael W. Twitty posted a really interesting Twitter thread about parasocial relationships, which he explains are “psychological relationship[s] experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters w/ performers in the mass media, particularly on television. People come to consider media personalities as friends, despite having limited interactions with them.”

Twitty, who has 50,000 Twitter followers, was talking about the relationship between his audience and himself—and how strange it is to be called out for doing something some of his followers think is “too much,” like retweeting The Lincoln Project’s anti-Trump videos. He was also (I think) grappling with the idea of himself as someone’s problematic fave.

But while it was interesting on its own merit, Twitty’s thread actually made me think of two completely different celebrities: Britney Spears and Kanye West. More specifically, it made me think about their respective mental health struggles, and the way the public feels entitled to comment on them because, regardless of whether or not we like them, we think we know them.

#FreeBritney means well—but it’s part of the problem

Everyone remembers Spears’ breakdowns. In 2007, she shaved her head in front of paparazzi, reportedly saying, “I don’t want everybody touching me. I’m tired of everyone touching me.” She infamously attacked a paparazzo’s car with a bright green umbrella. She tried rehab (twice) and lost custody of her children. In January 2008, she was placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold. The next month, her father, Jamie Spears, asked an L.A. judge to temporarily name him and lawyer Andrew Wallet as Spears’ conservators, which meant they were responsible for her person—and her $60 million estate. The arrangement eventually became a long-term one; in fact, it still stands, which means for the past 12 years, someone else has “sign[ed] off on every major decision [Spears] makes, from business, to health, to voting and marriage,” according to Newsweek. (Jamie Spears stepped down in 2019, so for the past year, it has been Spears’ care manager, Jodi Montgomery.)

But there’s a lot we don’t know. We have no idea what Spears’ diagnosis is; according to Vanity Fair, “court documents related to Spears’s condition and diagnosis are still sealed, with the reasoning that their release would cause ‘irreparable harm and immediate danger.’” We don’t really know the details of her conservatorship, or whether her doctors believe it’s still necessary. We don’t even really know what she thinks about it.


But that hasn’t stopped the public, and especially her fans, from speculating about Spears’ mental health and capacity to care for herself—or calling for a judge to #FreeBritney, which also happens to be the name of a social media campaign that centres on the idea that Spears is being held hostage. (Their reasoning frequently devolves into conspiracy theory territory; The Cut has an excellent breakdown.)

This is not to say that Britney’s apparent lack of autonomy is okay—but her fans’ wild speculation about her mental health is still a problem.

We might know Kanye’s diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean we know what’s going on

“What I worry about when people speculate about someone’s behaviour from a distance, without context and without any psychiatric knowledge, is that it… shrinks and trivializes [that behaviour],” says David Goldbloom, senior medical advisor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “And it provides a quick explanation for something that is likely more complex.”


That’s the case with Spears, even though we have very little information about her mental health. And it’s true for West, who we know a bit more about. He implied he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder on his 2018 album, Ye. That October, he told Donald Trump that he had been misdiagnosed, but as Kim Kardashian West revealed in her May 2019 Vogue cover story, he eventually accepted his diagnosis. In fact, around the same time as KKW’s interview, West was a guest on David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, where he described having bipolar as having a “sprained brain,” explained what it felt like when he was “ramping up” and talked about treatment (he wasn’t taking medication because he worried it would affect his creativity, but he found light therapy helpful).

Fast-forward to this year. In the weeks since West announced his presidential bid, the conversation has pivoted almost entirely to his mental health. It’s easy to understand why—he has been open about his diagnosis and clearly, something is going on with him right now, so people feel emboldened to speculate.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about the language we’re using in these discussions, and I think a lot of the time, we’re getting it wrong.

In a way, this reminds me of the discourse around Adele’s weight loss. Then, there was an ideal approach (sympathy, an understanding that speculation would contribute to fatphobia, the ability to disengage from the story) and what people did in reality (um… the exact opposite of that). Similarly, the ideal reaction to a celebrity’s mental illness might be to look away—or at least, not to treat it like entertainment. But in real life, I just don’t think the public is going to ignore Kanye West’s erratic tweets.

That doesn’t mean we can’t do better, though. Here’s how.

Use people-first language

Goldbloom recommends using people-first language. “Mental illnesses don’t define a person, so we’ve moved away from talking about ‘a schizophrenic’ to saying, ‘a person living with schizophrenia.”

That might seem like a subtle shift, but it’s actually pretty profound because it centres the person, not their illness.

Also, this probably should go without saying, but since I saw so many tweets calling Kanye crazy, I’m just going to say it: Don’t call people crazy.

“As someone with bipolar disorder and anxiety, being called crazy or being told ‘not to be crazy’ is wildly hurtful, because it exacerbates my own fears and insecurities about my brain, about whether I am reliable to myself and others, and about whether or not any of this is real,” says Kristy Frenken-Francis, a Métis writer who lives in B.C. “I think it takes away the potential severity of a person’s mental illness if they are simply dismissed as ‘crazy,’ rather than regarded as someone who is potentially in crisis and is needing help, or at the very least kindness and empathy.”

Besides, there are plenty of other words that we can use. Goldbloom suggests troubling, worrisome, hard to understand, alarming… “Those are comments on the behavior without making a presumptive diagnosis or saying something devaluing. It’s more an expression of concern than a judgement,” he says.

Don’t blame sexism or racism on mental illness

Back in 2018, writer Chimene Suleyman argued that Ye, the album that was seemingly about West’s mental health, was actually more about “the control men have, the obligations put on them, the disrespect they feel.” As proof, she pointed to lyrics like “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too/I’ma pray for him cause he got #MeToo’d / thinking what if that happened to me too / then I’m on E! News” and the entirety of “Violent Crimes,” where he asserts that men are players, savages and monsters—until they have daughters, which presumably teaches them that women are human beings. But he didn’t write those lyrics because he has bipolar disorder. Similarly, his infamous comments about slavery, obsession with white approval, ongoing misoynoir and even his assertion that vaccines are “the mark of the beast” don’t have anything to do with his mental health.

“You can be a jerk without having a mental illness,” Goldbloom says. “And if we assume that when someone acts like a jerk they must be mentally ill, it’s actually kind of demeaning to all of the nice people who happen to have mental illnesses.”

Frenken-Francis agrees. “I think it’s important to address the very real problems with the comments that Kanye has made by taking extra care not to dismiss him as simply being ‘crazy,’ because that can dismiss the harm that his words can cause,” she says. “For me, having a constructive conversation about this looks like acknowledging that he is unwell, while also acknowledging that his words and the rhetoric that he is spreading are harmful and dangerous…. [We don’t] have to forgive Kanye for the anti-Black and sexist comments he’s making. We are allowed to be upset about them and take them seriously, while also remembering our compassion for the fact that he’s unwell.”

Accountability is especially important considering who West is harming. As Jenn M. Jackson points out in her Teen Vogue column, Speak on It, when he says Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves, she just had them work for other white people,” he’s devaluing the historical contributions of a Black woman and signalling his overall disregard for Black women. And, she says, that’s why we shouldn’t ignore what he says. “We should be talking about how many Black men hold troubling ideas about Black women that frequently put our lives in danger,” she writes. “We should be talking about how mental illness is too often conflated with racism, misogyny, and other forms of oppression, and how that stereotypes people with mental illness while releasing people who uphold oppression from true accountability. And finally, we should be talking about how critical it is that, even for people we don’t know, we still need to create space to be broken, imperfect, and mentally undone.”

Stop speculating about celebrities’ mental health

But I think the hardest piece of advice to actually put into practice is this one: we have to stop speculating about famous people’s mental health. Yes, it is normal to be curious about what’s going on when Britney Spears posts videos where she seems manic, or Kanye West tweets and deletes nonsensical accusations—and to try to fill in the blanks based on what we know about their mental health. (Or rather, what we think we know.) But what does speculating actually accomplish? Not that much, says Neha Khorana, an Atlanta psychologist who specializes in working with women and racial/ethnic minorities.

“We see a snippet of [someone’s] story on social media and in the news, which doesn’t always give an accurate depiction of what’s happening in their lives. Speculating about whether they’re experiencing mental health issues or not just isn’t a helpful part of the conversation, since we don’t have enough information to make these conclusions,” she says.

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about what’s going on—sometimes, as Jackson argued, we actually should be talking about it. But according to Frenken-Francis, intention matters. “I think we need to think constructively about what purpose this speculation serves,” she says. “As we speculate, are we also having genuine, constructive conversations about mental health, about the state of politics and celebrity, about abuse of power—or are we simply gossiping? The way people speak about Kanye online and his bipolar diagnosis can be really cruel and just plain wrong. There are other people in the world with bipolar (hi) who may be reading these comments and are being harmed by them, because they contribute to the stigma against those who have bipolar.”

That’s why she believes that the most important thing the public can do is to approach these conversations with empathy.

“It’s crucial to remember that these people are celebrities, but they’re also real people with real emotions and real mental health, and we do not know them just because they are famous. [So,] we can have conversations about this and avoid the words ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ or ‘deranged’ and instead put an emphasis on the idea that this is a person who probably needs help and whose family is probably struggling and in need of compassion, too.”

A Thing I Like


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