At what point does a conservatorship run its course of effectiveness of helping those with severe mental health issues? When does it cross the line from protecting an individual to suppressing their right to freedom?
These are the very questions the public asked when pop icon Britney Spears pleaded with a judge that after 13 years of being under a conservatorship, she “just wants her life back.”
Finally, it appears Spears may very well be getting her wish, as it was announced recently that her father and architect of her conservatorship, Jamie Spears, was willing to step down from running it.
When Britney Spears showed signs of mental distress back in 2008, many ridiculed her for being unhinged. She shaved her head, smashed a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella, was hospitalized under a psychiatric hold twice and, ultimately, lost full custody of her children.
Much has changed over the past decade, with mental health advocates, celebrities and the general public now supporting Spears.
In the same court statement where he vowed to step down, Jamie Spears also said in the filing, “To the extent that Ms. Spears is upset with being admitted to the treatment facility, her medication, or her specific treatment plan, she is directing her anger towards the wrong person.” He also added that it is “unclear whether Ms. Spears knows or remembers” much of the details surrounding her allegations against the conservatorship.
This kind of gaslighting is something people with mental illness often face — where even at their most lucid they are accused of fabricating information.
The truth is, we don’t really know what specific mental health issues Spears has or had. However, a recent New Yorker article suggested that Spears’ anguish 13 years ago stemmed from postpartum depression, a messy custody battle and pressure from paparazzi who were following her every move.
But instead of giving her the help and compassion she needed, she paid a very steep price: a conservatorship that stripped her of her financial, professional and bodily autonomy.
It is possible that members of her family are sincere when they say that they hoped this was a temporary measure put in place until she regained control of her emotions and impulses. But more than a decade later, it has become clear that this is a system that is working well for everyone except the very person it is purported to protect.
When Spears spoke before a judge two months ago, she voiced shocking accusations regarding her treatment. According to Spears, she was not allowed to remove her IUD, was put on medications she said she does not need and expressed deep resentment for everyone complicit in this conservatorship.
Her father stepping down is the first tangible step toward freedom and something mental health advocates should embrace.
Her conservatorship saga also could be an example of institutional stigma. Traditionally, a conservatorship is put in place when a person — usually elderly — is deemed unfit to care for themselves. While Spears may be the most famous person under a conservatorship, there are 1.3 million Americans whose lives and/or finances are managed by a court-ordered third party.
When Spears testified in court, she was merely seeking that her father be removed as her caretaker. While the legitimacy of a conservatorship itself is a subject up for debate, surely healthy rehabilitation cannot occur when the conservatee feels exploited and belittled.
Moreover, there is a Catch-22 surrounding conservatorships. If the subject is thriving, advocates of the conservatorship argue that the arrangement must be working. But if the subject is floundering under a conservatorship, the advocates have ammunition to say, “This is exactly why this person can’t think for themselves.”
Since the conservatorship was put in place, Spears has been able to put out four albums and headline a global tour which grossed $130 million. The stamina, discipline and grit needed to maintain those successes should serve Spears well in the next chapter of her life, which needs to include the freedom to make her own decisions.
What is particularly worrisome is that if this could happen in plain sight to one of the most famous and wealthy women in the world, it could surely happen quite frequently to people with mental illnesses who do not have the same means as Spears. The pop star admitted that she was reluctant to make her testimony public because she was afraid of being mocked or stereotyped.
Regardless of whatever mental health issues one may have, nobody should feel hesitant to speak their truth for free of being ridiculed. In 2008, as a society we were too blind to acknowledge her pain. Thirteen years later, Spears is one powerful voice who has enabled us to see mental health survivors for who they are — people like you and me, who try their best despite whatever invisible demons they might be battling.
As a society, we must harness an environment where those in the spotlight feel an openness to display the courage of being transparent about mental health experiences. This in turn advances the goal of making progress toward ending the disturbing stigma associated with mental health issues. Today, this struggle and stigma surrounding mental health has transformed into a crisis of historic proportions, particularly due to the isolation and other unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spears may very well be free of her conservatorship soon, but we should not forget the lessons learned from her ordeal.