Internet, we need to have a talk.
I’ve had a number of readers ask why I’ve neglected to write about Amanda Bynes this last year. It’s simple, really. I don’t believe that celebrities are “fair game,” and that, when they have very human and very difficult struggles, I should capitalize on those things by writing an article, however well-intentioned. I believe they are deserving of privacy and respect, by virtue of their being people.
However, I’m making an exception here, because in the midst of the negative and callous press that Bynes has received, I think it’s time we had a chat about it from a different perspective. And then, after we’re done, I think it’s time we stop speculating about it altogether. Deal?
First and foremost, there is no way for us to know what, if anything, Bynes has been diagnosed with. The family has denied schizophrenia and bipolar diagnoses. And when I write this article about Bynes, I am only operating on the possibility – not the assumption – that these diagnoses are true.
Until Amanda Bynes comes out and self-identifies this way, it is not our place to make an assumption about her mental state. Most of us are not psychiatrists, and even if we were, none of us can make a diagnosis based on a Twitter feed. And it is Bynes’ prerogative to keep certain aspects of her life, including her health care, private.
For the sake of argument, we’re going to roll with the possibility, not the assumption, that Bynes may have bipolar and schizophrenia.
And on that note, I’m going to offer you a sobering statistic:
People with co-occurring bipolar and schizophrenia have one of the highest suicide attempt rates of any group. 70.6% of these individuals will attempt suicide in their lifetime.
You would think this would frighten us, and that we would be offering Bynes compassion on the mere basis that what she may be facing is, without a doubt, deadly.
Yet the vast majority of press and articles surrounding Bynes’ mental state seems to ignore the stark reality of her struggle, and instead, opt to mock her erratic and unusual behavior. Rather than recognizing that she may have an illness, they have turned mental illness into a spectacle to watch, enjoy, and ridicule.
We, as a culture, are alarmingly desensitized to the seriousness of mental illness, particularly when it affects celebrities. Whenever a famous person has a “breakdown,” or goes off to rehab, there is always a sensationalized headline and a gawking that we collectively do. We treat it like a performance to consume and be shocked by, to laugh at, to enjoy.
We have made mental illness into a form of entertainment, and this is reflected in the articles that have been written about Amanda Bynes as of late.
If no one has explained this to you, let me be the first to say that it is morally repugnant that we, as a society, are mocking mentally ill people.
If it is indeed true that Amanda Bynes has both bipolar and schizophrenia, she faces an uphill battle. These are both diseases with high mortality rates, and devastating symptoms that are difficult to treat. And while she faces these illnesses, the entire world is watching. To have the audacity of laughing and poking fun as she struggles with these painful disorders is truly disgusting.
It’s all fun and games until someone dies, as was the case with Robin Williams. When celebrities have very public “breakdowns,” we find them entertaining, sensational, intriguing. When celebrities die from these illnesses, however, we grieve for them, celebrate their lives, and profess our sympathy for their struggle.
Amanda Bynes may be battling two illnesses that could very easily kill her. Why is she not receiving the same level of respect, tact, and compassion that we afford those who have already died at the hands of these same illnesses?
Are we only deserving of dignity and respect if we die?
Does Amanda Bynes need to die by suicide before we will start valuing her life? How fucked up is that?
No matter what Bynes posts on twitter, or what wigs she wears, what we need to understand as outsiders is that something very difficult and frightening is happening to Amanda Bynes — and it is irresponsible to talk about it any other way, whether it’s to poke fun at it, or reduce it to her being “crazy.” In either scenario, it diminishes her personhood.
Why this reminder needs to happen is beyond me, but apparently it does: Bynes needs compassion, not ridicule, not laughter. Her struggles, whatever they may be, do not exist for your enjoyment.
Anyone who thinks an involuntary psychiatric hold is fun or amusing is horribly misguided. Anyone who thinks psychosis or paranoia is a walk in the park has clearly never been there. Anyone who thinks schizophrenia or bipolar is hilarious has never had their life devastated by these disorders.
I have. And I can tell you – there’s no pain on earth quite like it.
Anyone who has forgotten that Amanda Bynes is a human being first and foremost needs to step back, and do some serious soul-searching.
Any journalist or columnist who thinks Bynes’ behavior is great material for a lighthearted article needs to reexamine their motivations, and decide for themselves what kind of writer they want to be. Someone who profits off of someone’s pain? Or someone with integrity?
As someone with bipolar disorder, I want to offer a reminder to those who do not suffer from the disorder that making a mockery out of our struggle is dehumanizing. This should go without saying, but apparently it must be said: Mental illness is not a joke. Mental illness is not funny. Mental illness does not exist to amuse you.
If Amanda Bynes has taught us anything, it’s that mental illness can, in fact, touch anyone. It exists in every community, every city, every race, every social class, every gender. Celebrities are not immune to these devastating disorders. In fact, 13.6 million Americans live with a serious mental illness, and if Amanda Bynes is among them, she will need support and compassion to get through it.
What message are we sending, as journalists, bloggers, and writers, if we treat mental illness with the same brevity and amusement as writing about Kim Kardashian’s ass?
Did you cry when Robin Williams died, but laugh when Amanda Bynes was taken to the hospital? Why is that? I’m challenging you to really think about the ways that we treat folks with mental illness.
When we make these disorders into a joke, we become complicit in creating a culture where mentally ill people are taught to feel ashamed, isolated, and broken. And when we uphold that stigma instead of challenging it, it’s not surprising that so many people with these illnesses opt to take their own lives.
We need to do better. Not just for Amanda Bynes, but for all the people worldwide who suffer from these disorders.
It’s not a spectacle. It’s a goddamn illness.
Sam Dylan Finch is a freelance writer and queer activist, currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a queer and feminist perspective on current events and politics.
Visit his official website: www.samdylanfinch.com
UPDATE (10/20/14): Due to the confusion surrounding the title, the article has been renamed from “It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Dies: Amanda Bynes, Robin Williams, and the Spectacle of Mental Illness,” to omit the first portion. The intent of the original title was to compare and contrast the treatment of celebrities before and after they die — never to suggest that Bynes had passed away.
UPDATE (10/22/14): A new article has been written in response to this piece going viral.
UPDATE (11/9/14): Commenters have pointed out that co-occurring bipolar and schizophrenia is commonly referred to as “schizoaffective disorder.”
UPDATE (11/14/14): There is now an animated version of this article!
As of 11/15, comments have been disabled on this article.