Why Are We Still Treating Britney Spears's Health Struggles as a "Rough Patch"?

We owe her empathy, compassion… and a real reckoning with stigma

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Britney Spears wearing a black dress against a green background
(Photo: Getty Images)

“I repeat, Britney Spears has posted on Instagram!”

This was one of the first tweets I read on my timeline on April 3. I immediately navigated to Spears’s Instagram profile and there it was: the first post she’d made since January. True to her Insta-brand, it was an inspirational quote: “Fall in love with taking care of yourself. Mind. Body. Spirit.”

She captioned it with, “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time.’”

Minutes later, news broke that Spears had checked herself into a mental health facility the previous week. According to TMZ, she’ll spend 30 days at the facility in treatment for her emotional wellness. This news comes after she cancelled her second Las Vegas residency in January to focus on supporting her father, who’d been hospitalized in late 2018 after a ruptured colon.

It’s impossible to think about her mental health today without thinking about her previous struggles—that photo of her, hair freshly buzzed, about to slam a teal umbrella into the door of a paparazzi’s SUV is still burned into our collective conscious.

In fact, it’s impossible to think of Spears in any context without thinking about her mental health, and we’re not always super sensitive about it. Proof: The meme that continues to pop up on motivational social media accounts: “If Britney made it through 2007, you can make it through today.”

That’s not to say that we haven’t learned anything. In sharp contrast to the way the media covered Britney’s 2007 breakdown and subsequent struggles, news outlets have mostly refrained from sensationalizing the most recent story. Some journalists did miss the mark; Page Six’s article callously opened with, “Commit me baby one more time,” while Entertainment Tonight labelled it as a “cry for help,” promising their audience details on her personal health matters. The former also chose an unflattering image of Spears to accompany their piece, implying that treating her mental health is a poor reflection on her character. But, for the most part, coverage has been if not sensitive, at least straightforward.

But that’s not quite enough, because how we talk about Spears today reflects our own attitudes towards mental health, too. Although we may intellectually understand that it’s inappropriate to make fun of people with mental illnesses, we still have this continued knee-jerk reaction to mock Spears for hers. It’s as if the public’s perception of Spears is frozen in time, where we’re unable to see past her breakdown to fully recognize her as a human being.

Despite an incredibly successful career that spans music and merchandise (her fragrance business is worth a literal billion dollars), the general public still mainly associates her with her breakdown. That’s clear whenever we invoke 2007 to remind us we can make it through today. Although well-intentioned, platitudes like this completely erase the gravity of what Spears survived, and minimizes the seriousness of mental health. Even if it’s just a joke meant to get us out of bed on a Monday morning, it isn’t OK for this motivation to come at the expense of someone who could have died. Back in 2008, the Associated Press pre-emptively drafted Spears’ obituary, and later in court, her father described her breakdown as “a battle for life and death.” We know that without timely intervention and treatment, anxiety and depression can be fatal—so why do people still treat Spears’s past struggles like a rough patch at best, and a joke at worst?

While the discourse around mental health has certainly progressed over the past decade, words ring hollow without meaningful action. I admire Spears for leading by example, normalizing the action of seeking treatment, making the tough decision to publicly step away from her career and family. It’s a sign of her strength and resilience that she’s able to recognize her own limitations. Yes, this is a mark of her privilege—she has resources that allow her that option, something many of us don’t have thanks to the prevalence of precarious employment. But I’m not mad that Spears is getting the help she needs; in fact, I’m thrilled that she’s doing it so publicly.

If we’re serious about creating a culture where we can prioritize psychological wellness, we must address the inadequacies in our systems and institutions. We must do away with the toxic, capitalist ideology that values productivity and results over our health and happiness. But none of that can happen until we actually believe, on a societal level, that mental health isn’t a punchline and seeking treatment isn’t something to be ashamed about. Celebrities are human beings just like us, and when they’re open about their struggles, it’s our responsibility to treat them with the kind of empathy and compassion we extend to our own loved ones.

Six years ago, Spears told us to get to “work, bitch,” and I think it’s time we took her advice—but not for a Maserati or a Bugatti. Instead, we need to start working towards further destigmatizing, normalizing and supporting our mental well-being.

Related:

How to *Really* Talk About Mental Health
How to Support a Friend in Crisis—From Someone Who Has Been There
Lady Gaga at the GRAMMY Awards: “If You See Somebody That’s Hurting, Don’t Look Away”

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