Amber Heard and Britney Spears highlight the stigma of women’s mental illness
The mental health of prominent women has been the subject of particularly blatant public slander and scrutiny. This spring, millions of viewers online watched a weeks-long defamation lawsuit between Amber Heard and her former husband Johnny Depp. The lawsuit was used as fodder for social media posts that sought to portray Heard as “unstable”, and it included direct speculation about his mental health by a forensic psychologist called in by Depp’s team. The outcome of the case did not matter. When it comes to stigma and career, the costs and damages to a woman weigh heavily if she is labeled with a mental illness and cannot be undone.
Women face widespread prejudice, discrimination and unrealistic expectations, even when it comes to their emotional well-being. They should be seen as holding everything together. They must succeed in their careers, maintain their sympathy, serve as doting mothers, etc., while performing their work more competently. and modesty than their male counterparts. Actresses, singers and other celebrities carry the added burden of societal prescriptions to be simultaneously sexy and innocent. This link is impossible to negotiate and it comes with significant mental health costs.
Society can easily weaponize the mental well-being of high-profile women, as Heard’s case shows. In other cases, this control has even cost some women their basic autonomy. Take the example of the iconic pop star Britney Spears. Images of a “crazy” Spears first surfaced more than 15 years ago when she grabbed a pair of clippers from a beauty salon and shaved her head in full view of the paparazzi. Sensationalist criticism followed: could she no longer practice her profession, parent her children or manage her own finances? Had she completely lost her mental capacity? A court commissioner quickly placed her under guardianship led by her father, James Spears, and it wasn’t until late 2021 that a judge freed her from that grip. The idea that a 40-year-old multi-millionaire professional couldn’t manage her personal affairs (including her own reproductive rights) seems completely wrong.
Other female celebrities have come under fire for their mental health issues. After pop star Selena Gomez shared her experiences with depression and panic attacks, members of the media laughed at her and commented on the cruelty she faced. Singer and actress Lady Gaga championed mental health rights sharing her own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, noting that coming out of her mental health issues was a controversial experience that exposed her to the public eye. Mental health diagnoses are still heavily laden with deep-rooted stigma, even though severe clinical disorders are common and many people successfully recover or manage them.
Coverage of women’s mental health stands in stark contrast to how famous men are portrayed in the media. Kanye West suffers from bipolar disorder and Jim Carrey suffered from depression, and no judge put them under conservatorship. Sometimes these men even received praise for how their mental illness set them apart from other artists. Pop culture has sometimes romanticized the mental illnesses of male painters, novelists, and composers, from Ernest Hemingway to David Foster Wallace, as central to their genius. Female celebrities face a different reality: they must meet the impossible expectations of needing to be compassionate and competitive while transparently projecting a sexual personality. The resulting internalization and feeling of helplessness can only harm mental health. One of us (Hinshaw) clearly explained this case in The triple bond.
Raising awareness of the mental health struggles of a high-profile woman perpetuates the idea that she is inadequate and incompetent, and that these shortcomings affect their craft. This fundamentally devalues and stigmatizes her. Importantly, society and the courts continue to perceive women as unreliable reporters—too dramatic, less competent and less “logical” than men.
Despite increased public awareness of mental illness, stigma remains strong, especially for women. As Hinshaw argued in The mark of shame and Another form of madness, many people denigrate behaviors perceived as irrational, and this is particularly the case for women. After all, if unpopular or “deviant” behaviors are the product of mental illness, then any social or political value they convey must, by definition, be irrational and discountable.
Women with mental health issues are more likely than men to experience ‘self-stigma’— internalizing the idea that they are flawed and not deserving of evidence-based treatment. These biases start early. Adolescent girls are subjected to a cascade of simultaneous and often contradictory stressors, a real unreasonable link high expectations.
Is it any surprise that rates of binge eating, depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, and non-suicidal self-harm (cutting) continue to rise, especially among teenage girls and women? Discussions about mental health stigma have increased over the past few years, and one of us (Gruber) has launched a free online course called #talkmentalillness to fight it. But not enough attention has been paid to how this stigma interacts with gender. Are girls and women paying a higher price, losing more opportunities and even freedoms in their professional and personal lives? Too often, these issues are viewed as a personal weakness or female “attention seeking” rather than a matter of clinical and public health concern.
Society’s fascination with women’s mental health issues – and the shocking losses of personal and professional freedoms and reputational damage that some women have suffered as a result – should open our eyes to the lingering stigma and burden of mental illness for girls and women. It is time for discussions around mental health stigma to acknowledge and address this double standard so that women and girls can get the support and treatment they need without fear that their lives will be destroyed if they do. .
This is an opinion and analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.