Trigger warning: the following essay mentions depression and suicidal ideation.
By now, it’s pretty clear that the tabloid and news media from the early-mid 2000s owes Britney Spears an apology. If you didn’t feel cringey looking at old headlines— “Inside Britney’s Breakdown,” “Babies in Danger,” “Who’ll Be Forced Into Rehab Next?“— then it certainly came to light if you watched the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears.
Throughout her career in the late ’90s to early 2000s, Britney went from squeaky clean singer to sexpot to young married mother to party girl, her existence up for ridicule the entire way. After some controversies in the mid-2000s, including a 55-hour marriage, driving a car with her baby on her lap, and divorce from Kevin Federline, the tabloid media zeroed in on her every move, making headlines out of the most innocuous missteps. Then, in the mid-2000s, she started exhibiting behavior that could best be described as troubling, and the cameras kept rolling.
By 2007, the media framed Britney as someone who had lost her mind. No one considered that she might be struggling with her mental health and desperately needed help; they treated her as a circus act to gawk at: Come, everyone, marvel at the most famous pop star in the world who barged into a hair salon and shaved her own head with a pair of clippers. Watch as she flies into a rage and takes an umbrella to a paparazzo’s car. Read all about her “meltdown” on the set of a tabloid magazine shoot. Step right up to see her try and make a comeback with an uncomfortable performance on the MTV VMA’s stage just months later, her mind clearly elsewhere.
In the mid-2000s, I was having a tough time coming to terms with my own mental illness. I had been diagnosed with depression at age 14 and put on a pretty high dose of Zoloft. I was suicidal at the time and have no doubt that medication and therapy saved my life. But mental illness wasn’t something that was openly discussed, definitely not in school, and certainly not in mainstream media. Tabloid magazines that littered drug stores and nail salons and the community pool where I worked framed celebrities who fell from grace as “tragic,” chalking up any abnormal behavior as having a “meltdown,” not taking into consideration someone’s mental health and the circumstances that would lead them to act differently from their carefully-curated public image.
When I started college in 2006, I tried everything I could to cloak my secret. I had taken myself off my prescriptions. That’s the thing about antidepressants — when they work, you start to believe you don’t need them anymore. I tried to convince myself the frequent naps I took during the day was because I had been up all night studying, not because I was depressed. My loss of interest in hobbies was because I didn’t have time for anything besides school. The mood swings I experienced were because of stress.
I felt myself spiraling, and the only thing I could think was “don’t let anyone think you are ‘crazy,'”
In 2007, when I moved into a sorority house, E! was constantly on the TV, and I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a tabloid magazine. This was the era of Britney shaving her head and the umbrella attack and checking into rehab, and the media was documenting her downfall with fervor.
By then, I had started to experience bouts of hypomania, the first signs of what would eventually be a bipolar II diagnosis. I would stay up all night in a creative frenzy, toiling away at god-knows-what, and sleep all day, skipping class and watching as my grades suffered. I would get drunk and yell at my friends, very out-of-character behavior for someone like me who hates confrontation. I would get flashes of anger and feared I might get violent. I never did, but I could sympathize with someone being so enraged that they grabbed whatever object was near them and attacked their instigator, just wanting to be left alone. I felt myself spiraling, and the only thing I could think was “don’t let anyone think you are ‘crazy,’ you can’t let them know.”
I am not here to speculate if Britney does in fact have a serious mental illness, as the singer herself has only openly spoken about her feelings of anxiety and taking care of her mental health. And I could never fathom the type of pressure Britney was under, from the public, from the team of people who relied on her for a paycheck, from her family who seemed to care more about her public persona than her personal health. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be literally stalked with dozens of flashing lightbulbs everywhere you go, how every move you make would be documented and later served to the public for ridicule.
But if the general public viewed celebrities with disdain instead of compassion when they were having a breakdown, if media companies profited off of being voyeurs to someone’s personal crisis, how could anyone feel comfortable enough to speak out about their own mental health struggles?
As Instagram and social media began to take the place of paparazzi pictures and weekly tabloids, celebrities have been able to speak to fans directly and take back more control of their narratives. Britney had been under a conservatorship from her father, Jamie Spears, since 2008 (although a judge recently ruled that he no longer has sole control of her conservatorship), and we can only speculate how her mental health has fared in the meantime. She canceled her Vegas residency in 2019 and entered a mental health facility months later. However, over the last few years, she’s shown a more fun, lighthearted side of her personality on Instagram, where she posts workouts and dancing videos and speaks directly to her followers.
Now in 2021, with a generation of young people who embrace authenticity and are open about their own mental health struggles, it’s almost unfathomable that not only supermarket tabloids, but also mainstream news outlets would treat a vulnerable young woman the way they did. Now people can look up to Demi Lovato, who has spoken openly about her bipolar disorder, eating disorder, and substance abuse. Lili Reinhart has given interviews about her depression and erasing the stigma, and Billie Eilish has been honest about her struggle with depression and suicidal ideation. These celebrities are now embraced by magazines, public mental health campaigns, and revealing TV interviews to share their experience with mental illness in their own words.
I’m a firm believer that people can genuinely learn from their mistakes and do better, and it seems like a lot of the media, and the subsequent conversation around mental illness, has improved. Since the documentary aired, Britney has started to receive more empathy, including an apology from ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, and fans have resurfaced a kind monologue Craig Ferguson delivered on The Late Late Show in 2007 where he vowed not to make fun of Britney and revealed his experience with sobriety. There’s still a long way to go, but I hope the next generation of young people can look up to current celebrities, influencers, and peers on social media and realize that struggling with your mental health or being diagnosed with a mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.
If you are feeling anxious or depressed and need help finding help or resources, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (1-800-950-6264) have resources available.
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal ideation or are at risk, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has several resources and a 24/7 lifeline at 1-800-273-8255