January 23, 2008

Heath & Britney: Why mental health is no laughing matter

Yes, I’m devoting a sermon blog post to discuss Heath Ledger and Britney Spears. Please allow me a moment to get all high-and-mighty as I'm reeling from the news of Heath Ledger’s passing.

The news yesterday that Ledger had died of an apparent suicide made my heart sink (as of this writing the cause of death is inconclusive, but it appears that this is the case). I find it tragic when people die under any circumstances, but suicides make it doubly so. Mental health is a grossly undervalued aspect of personal health and very few resources are devoted to helping people cope with problems such as depression and anxiety.

With Ledger’s passing, I’m reminded of Britney Spears’s situation and what appears to be her inexorable path to oblivion.

And how nobody cares.

Actually, I take that back: we care about Britney insofar as we need to take a piss on people who are more popular and successful than we are. It makes us feel better to see others fail. We need our daily dose of schadenfreude--and who better to laugh at than Britney Spears.

Tee-hee, silly, Britney. Oops! Looks like she did it again!

Well, we aren’t laughing this morning upon hearing about Ledger’s death. Suicides happen. And it might happen to Britney unless she gets some help.

Her hair-shaving episode was indication that she's likely having suicidal ideations. There have even been rumors about attempts; her irrational behavior is no secret. It appears that she’s manic-depressive and could probably use some medication and some real therapy outside of Dr. Phil and the celebrity circle. She needs to go away for a while and get better.

It also appears that Britney is incapable of getting help for herself and that her sycophants aren’t likely to intervene in a way that’s required. It’s sad that the system isn’t set up so that a person could be flagged and offered help. I’m not even sure what to suggest in this case…

But what’s certainly not helping is the endless barrage of media parodies and the collective snickering that’s going around. We wouldn’t laugh and make fun of someone with cancer or diabetes. This is no different. We all need to adopt a much better attitude about mental health and stop treating it like some kind of stigma.

As we think of Heath Ledger today, let’s hope that Britney gets the help she needs to avoid a similar fate.

14 comments:

John said...

At a personal, humanistic level, I have compassion for Britney Spears and Heath Ledger, his family, friends, whoever.

But why should I care any more about these two, than of the BILLION people who live with on less than a dollar a day. The BILLION people who are starving to death, lack proper shelter, etc. Why are the intimate lives and personal disfunctions of celebrities more important that that? Big deal, he's an actor? So what? Big deal, she's a singer, so what? How many children died of malnutrition yesterday that could have been saved if wealthy people donated an extra 1% of their income to charity instead of spending it supporting celebrity culture?

The whole has massive pressing problems and the amount of media attention focused on celebrities is ridiculous and absurd.

Tom said...

Just a minor quibble with your writing. Your use of the expression "get better" with respect to mental illness is a bit of a simplistic expression for something that is considerably more complicated.

Your compassion for her is admirable. And, as usual, your thinking and writing great. Keep up the great work!

George said...

John: I'm using the high profile example of these two figures to highlight a problem that's endemic to the entire population. People know and follow celebrities, and through this familiar association -- and as you quite rightly put: a misappropriation of priorities -- I'm hoping that people get my message about mental health and its stigma.

George said...

Tom: Your point is well taken. Given more time and energy I might have elaborated a bit more about what can and should be done.

Nato said...

I totally agree with George's point, and have expressed it myself with respect to Spears before (though I have always found her a little painful to contemplate, as the Spears phenomenon has exalted humanity). However, I think there's a sense in which the cultural construction of Spears as "successful" has been damaging, and to some extent I see a real upside her implosion as a warning to those who might otherwise have taken her as an example to be valorized. Further, I think the popular construal of success for a young pop star like Spears probably exacerbated whatever tendency she (and other young women like her) already had toward manic depression.

Those vilifying or demeaning her may do so out of spite, but if they weren't simultaneously propagating a distracting and counterproductive view of mental illness at the same time, they would be performing a sort of social service by identifying a dangerous outcome for the fame-seeker.

Anonymous said...

The news yesterday that Ledger had died of an apparent suicide made my heart sink...

Is that what they are saying? I haven't gotten that impression from the news. They mentioned it as a possibility, but lots of sources strongly deny that as the cause of his death.

I find it tragic when people die under any circumstances, but suicides make it doubly so. Mental health is a grossly undervalued aspect of personal health and very few resources are devoted to helping people cope with problems such as depression and anxiety.

There are plenty of resources, but people don't want to use them because of social stigma. Do you know how people react to you when you have a history of suicidal ideation? I do. That's why in order to mention it, I've decided to post anonymously.

Actually, I take that back: we care about Britney insofar as we need to take a piss on people who are more popular and successful than we are.

I heard some estimates that Britney Spears generates $120 million in the American economy each year. It's not money she makes for herself, but money she makes for the media that report on her.

And you wonder why she gets reported on so much...

Her hair-shaving episode was indication that she's likely having suicidal ideations.

Now that's arm chair psychiatry if I've ever seen it. I have a more likely explanation: she shaved her head a few days after she had checked into rehab and checked out abruptly about 10 hrs later. More than likely, she realized she was going to have to undergo a hair test for drugs (a common procedure at drug rehabs), and didn't want any positive test results that might jeopardize her custody battle. Of course, that preceded all of her latest antics.

It’s sad that the system isn’t set up so that a person could be flagged and offered help. I’m not even sure what to suggest in this case…

Yep, that's what happens when you have so much money that you don't have any responsibility to others. An ordinary person with bipolar disorder would screw up on the job or something, and, needing desperately to keep their job, or their marriage, or their kids, would be pressured into seeking treatment.

Spears has already lost her kids but it looks like she simply doesn't give a damn. She continues to skip the court hearings.

Nato said...

Just a gratuitously erudite nitpick, but

"...generates $120 million in the American economy each year"

is misleading. Advertising, for example, "generates" a great deal of money, but when you look at it, this nominal figure disguises the fact that almost all of that represents and opportunity cost of economic resources consigned to oblivion. For example, a hurricane "generates" a whole lot of money because of all the rebuilding, the salaries of actuaries, etc etc, but really a stock of goods amounting to far more than the value of the "generated" economic activity has been erased. Likewise, ads and other disposable-type entertainment represent resources diverted from generating durable goods and services.

In a sense, only Spears' personal artistic output really counts as a "contribution" since the rest of it represents devoting resources, including the time of talented people, to produce goods with an extremely short shelf life and which only entertains in the most ephemeral way.

Also:
"Spears has already lost her kids but it looks like she simply doesn't give a damn. She continues to skip the court hearings"

Perhaps she has a crippling aversion to what must feel like a public pillory? I don't know how depressed and humiliated she's feeling (especially given the social stigma attached to mental illness), but I'm guessing it's a lot. I'm not saying she's handling it well - it seems evident that her life has not equipped her to deal with this kind of setback - but it seems something of a leap to say that she just doesn't care. Except perhaps insofar as a deeply depressed person stops caring about almost everything.

Anonymous said...

Let's remember that she hasn't been diagnosed with a mental illness yet. She was involuntarily committed a few weeks ago and they found nothing. You can lie to a certain extent, but a depressed person doesn't go gallivanting around, shopping constantly, taking trips to Mexico, and so on. They are for the most part bed- or house-ridden. If she's bipolar, she would have episodes of both. I don't see such a pattern.

Nato said...

I'll admit, anon, I don't know anything about her life that hasn't been summarized on a Google News frontpage. I don't insist on the mental illness interpretation.

Anonymous said...

It's virtually impossible not to be kept abreast of her latest antics in this media climate. But you can go on one of those celebrity exploitation websites, like Perez Hilton or TMZ, and do a search for her name. You'll find almost daily updates of her antics.

In terms of a possible mental illness, there are lots of things we can rule out.

- She's not schizophrenic. Schizophrenia usually begins in one's early twenties, and she's already 26, so there would have been signs of it years ago. Further, schizophrenics usually have paranoid delusional thoughts and tend to adhere to conspiracy theories and say lots of crazy things. I have heard nothing of the sort with regards to her. At the severe end, they have full-on auditory hallucinations, and mild visual hallucinations.

- She's not bipolar. Bipolar never results from environmental stressors. It's genetic in nature. It is a condition where one's mood swings are wider than a "normal" person's. The bipolar sufferer may be depressed, house-ridden, not want to talk to anybody for days, then will suddenly become hyperactive with racing thoughts and speech. Again, I don't see that pattern.

A propos, a unipolar manic state has sometimes been suggested in transhumanist circles to be a blessing because it makes you constitutively hyperactive, goal-seeking, etc. But one psychiatrist that I talked to who treated a man with this rare condition described it as hell. The guy constantly had racing thoughts and would ramble on about nonsense for hours at a time. He could get very little done because of his lack of concentration.

- If she had a biological predisposition toward depression and suicidal ideation, this would have been evident from her early teens. Nothing of the sort has ever been mentioned, so I disqualify any biological predispositions toward depression.

- She COULD be depressed due to certain recent life events, but again, her behavior contradicts such a diagnosis. A depressed person wouldn't be as active as she is.

- It is my opinion that she's simply reacting to a highly stressful situation and has bad coping skills. That's not mental illness per se, but it could be helped by therapy.

Nato said...

Anon, I would more or less have to take your word for it regarding Spears' actions - I certainly have no desire to research the particulars of her history.

As a bit of a backgrounder, I have a very close friend who, like her father before her, began to suffer from increasingly serious chemical imbalances at around 22, becoming increasingly worse until her suicidal ideation became almost constant at about 25. Medication has since ameliorated her symptoms, but she remains far less emotionally functional than she was at 23. She suffers from serious social anxiety and depression, but apparently not the "garden variety," hence her late onset and the dubious efficacy of her medical regimen.

mnuez said...

I'm with John. Only more so.

I believe that the troubles and deaths of super-rich people offer the rest of us some guilt-free schadenfreude. For all of the jealousy, envy, feelings of uselessness and depression that the existence of the wealthy engender in billions of others... a few public deaths every now and then is the very least they can do for us.

My care, concern and sadness is reserved for the billions of suffering humans whose suffering is only amplified by the existence of these money-hoarders. The money-hoarders themselves can feel free to die for our amusement at their leisure.

mnuez
www.mnuez.blogspot.com

Shane said...

I just listened to your podcast and I'm with you on the Britney thing. I can imagine taking a certain relief at the demise of somebody who imposed a horrible cost on humanity. However Britney? So she made a lot of money making music that brought joy to 10 year old girls. Good for her. If that's not your thing... just move on.

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