When Amanda Bynes was placed on her first psychiatric hold in September of 2013, there was no longer a question about the mental-health issues inherent to her narrative. But the way that reality has been ignored since Bynes reemerged over the last couple of weeks is a reminder that mental health is often misunderstood. In hopes of removing ourselves from this trend, HuffPost Entertainment made an editorial decision to not cover Bynes outside of news concerning hospitalization or arrest. With the help of psychiatrist Dr. Paul Puri, we set out to answer some FAQs about mental health in specific relation to Bynes, with a broader goal of countering the stigma surrounding these issues. (Dr. Puri has not treated or interacted with Bynes, and is basing his comments on observations of her public behavior.)
So what if people are interested in Amanda? Maybe they just really like her and want her to get better.
Sure, there are probably a few concerned folks amid the rubber-necking masses. But take a look at the fact that after she tweeted claims of molestation on Friday, she gained 10,000 followers. When these kind of behaviors are covered, it perpetuates an unhealthy voyeurism surrounding a young woman who would best be removed from public scrutiny.
What about last year, when she was calling people ugly and stuff. Didn’t HuffPost cover all of that?
We did. At that moment, concerns about Bynes' mental health had yet to emerge in an official capacity. When she was placed on psychiatric hold in September of 2013, it was clear that this was not a simple case of a child star acting out. As Dr. Paul Puri told HuffPost Entertainment, mental illness can be difficult to spot in public figures. "Many celebrities will engage in outlandish behavior for the purpose of attention," he said. "Trying to understand where that boundary is and when it crosses a line that might be an illness can be hard to identify."
But didn't HuffPost also just report on her recent hospitalization?
Yes. What we are avoiding is the sort of norm-defying behavior that is being commodified as spectacle. It's a difficult line to draw. We feel it's important to share the stories that provide awareness of the origin of her actions, in hopes of reducing the idea that any of this has just simply been "for attention." As Puri put it, "Trying to understand what’s happening may be less important than recognizing that their behavior is not fitting the norm and impairing them in some way, and thus wanting them to get some help or care."
What about the story about her getting engaged! That's a big deal, that's not norm-defying or whatever you just said.
Whether or not she is actually engaged, the announcement was made in a harried interaction with a reporter. Ultimately, covering this type of thing results in Bynes' struggles becoming a product.
Oh, that makes sense. Kind of like what happened with Britney Spears in 2007, right?
In a way. Bynes is surely not the first to go through this “fallen starlet” pattern. Over at The Guardian, Jill Filipovic posited that watching pop and movie stars go through this undoing is satisfying because it breaks such strict standards of beauty. “Aesthetically, we gravitate toward culturally-agreed-upon beauty, but perfection slashed through with hideousness can be particularly compelling,” she wrote. “When we're used to seeing actresses, pop stars and models as part of an assembly line of real-life Barbie dolls, it becomes all the more interesting to see one go by with her head popped off.”
What about all the other celebrities who have mental-health issues that we don't know about. Why is HuffPost covering them?
As Puri said above, it can be hard to tell, because so much outlandish celebrity behavior is "for attention." Mindfulness is not omniscience. We'll do our best and if something like this emerged about another star, we'd make a similar decision.
Fine, but what is the takeaway about mental health here? I thought it was stigmatized. What does that mean?
The stigma surrounding mental health comes from a fear of the unknown. "People may fear that all people with mental illness are inherently dangerous or risky, because they fear the unknown. What happens in someone else's brain seems a mystery, and when someone acts erratically, all those fears can get lumped together. We fear the unknown, because it's scary or because it's foreign to us," Puri said.
We also tend to foster an inherent dislike of that which is different. "It is the people who don’t fit with the mainstream that we end up pushing to the side," he explained. "When there’s a problem like this, there are many people who have never had a mental health problem, so they can’t relate to it. They have no way in to understand it, and so it just seems all the stranger for it."
What does that have to do with the lack of sympathy you keep talking about?
The lack of sympathy surrounding mental health may be due to the way we conflate mental illness with personality. "Mental health problems involve something wrong with the brain, even if you think of it as the mind, it’s incredibly tied into somebody’s character or how we see them," Puri said. "It’s hard to distinguish that person from their brain or their illness. Them being ill ends up becoming coloring how we can see them at all, and we only see this problem as being who they are."
On some level, that also has to do with the fact that Bynes is a celebrity. As her friend Nick Cannon told HuffPost Live last week, "If this was a person who was in a mental hospital, would you do the same thing? But just because she's someone that is a public figure, we feel like it's fun to [make fun of her]. But no, this is someone who needs help ..."
So, what is the best way to counter this stigma so we don't all turn into insensitive monsters?
It's important to address these issues by being as informed as possible. Much of the stigma of mental health comes from our lack of understanding, but that's fairly easy to combat. "I would love to see general informational topics going out there, to help people understand certain types of behavior that is otherwise stigmatized or misunderstood," Puri said, "So, anything from people who talk to themselves to people who have paranoid delusions or anything else. That would help people to maybe understand, when you see people on the street or in the headlines, what might be happening. So they can draw their own conclusions, but from a more informed place."
Dr. Puri is a psychiatrist and writer on the faculty of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry. He specializes in psychotherapy treatment of complex psychiatric conditions including personality disorders. You can find his website here.