Mental health, stigma and Amanda Bynes

Calling all B-list celebrity mental health monitors! Do you ever fear that when it comes to ex-Nickelodeon actress Amanda Bynes’ descent into her own personal hell, you might lose track of which entertainingly mad thing happened when? Then fear no more! For MTV has created Amanda Bynes: A Timeline of Her Troubles. Never again shall you fret over whether the being “kicked out of gymnastics class over talking to herself” came before the appearing in court “looking dishevelled in an ill-fitting blonde wig, sweatshirt and sweatpants”. At last someone’s taken the time to document it all, from the racist tweets to the involuntary psychiatric hold. Phew! Guess this means we can finally relax and get back to more serious tasks. Who’s up for placing bets on the next Z-list suicide attempt?

To be honest, I’ve never been much of a Bynes fan. It’s not that I’ve never seen any of her films; who needs to? My main gripe is that I wish she’d done a bit more lashing out before getting carted off to the institution. Or perhaps if she’d self-harmed in public, that’d have been fine (providing we got pictures). This, after all, is what modern celebrity-watching is like. Waiting and hoping for famous people to implode, and then wallowing in faux concern. After all, these people need our armchair diagnoses, delivered via the Sidebar of Shame. How else would they cope?

With Bynes – as with Britney Spears, Lark VorhiesEmily Lloyd, Kerry Katona, Gail Porter or countless other “car crashes” (official diagnostic term applied to human beings) – it’s interesting to watch the gradual shift from kooky weirdness to nastiness to full-on madness. Or rather, it’s not interesting. It’s boring, mean-spirited and senseless, and it betrays a widespread fear not just of mental illness per se, but of any type of behaviour that is not deemed “normal”. In the case of Bynes we lump together a mental breakdown, racist attacks and wearing a stupid wig as though they’re all one and the same thing. It appears Amanda Bynes is whatever we’re not. We’re not unfashionable, we’re not racist, we’re not mad (moral weightings for each of these things being entirely equal, or so it would seem).

Far from making us more receptive to difference, social media and mass communication appear to be making us more narrow-minded. On the one hand we relish the extremes – scratches on wrists which might indicate suicide attempts, severe emaciation suggestive of an eating disorder, disturbingly muddled interviews on daytime TV which scream DRUGS! – while on the other we’ve decided that pretty much anyone famous doing anything in public is potentially a bit weird, perhaps at the start of a slippery slope. Just how frightened are we? (And by “we” I mean us “normal” people, obviously.)

Mental illness is not contagious. We do not need to constantly reiterate our own stability in the face of it. From obsessing over whether or not Amanda Bynes is a lost soul to mulling over whether eating in public while looking sad equals comfort bingeing, we’re using celebrities to define ourselves as sane and grounded. Only it doesn’t work. Most of us know that if we were famous, ninety nine percent of the things we do after stepping outside our own front doors would be deemed unacceptable. Whether we’re in a tizz over lost car keys or pulling our faces at a gust of wind, by Daily Mail standards we probably look mentally disturbed every minute of the day. That’s not even taking into account all of the genuinely strange things we think and do, nor even considering the mental trauma that so many of us do suffer and of which we shouldn’t be ashamed.

The Amanda Bynes Timeline of Troubles makes me furious. It shows just how far we haven’t come in addressing the stigma attached to mental illness, in responding responsibly to all of the embarrassing, socially inappropriate scenarios it creates, and in differentiating between behaviour that is morally wrong and that which is merely uncool. It shows how terrified we are of not conforming. We should be better and more humane than this. Even if those hurt by her condemn Bynes for her genuine transgressions, we should consider what the constant focus on her broader “meltdown” says to other people in need of help. Photographers, writers and audiences should be able, if not to support, then at least to know when to look away.


2 thoughts on “Mental health, stigma and Amanda Bynes

  1. It’s a far-fetched analogy but it reminds of historical times when unfortunate people were made into spectacles – their misery for the entertainment of others. E.g., the gladiators of Rome, the people watching hangings, paying to see inmates in Bedlam etc. Doesn’t say much about human character does it — that we are fascinated by the downfall of another? Now we can watch events unfold on our Ipads courtesy of the paparazzi. The more things change, the more stay the same.

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