Our culture has a history of mistreating celebrities when they’re struggling.
When Britney Spears was at one of her most vulnerable mental health moments in the early 2000s, she shaved her head and became a public punchline. David Letterman grilled Lindsay Lohan for laughs in 2013 before she headed off to rehab, and Pamela Anderson has said she felt mocked and exploited following the leak of her sex tape.
Earlier this week, news reports began to surface regarding Amanda Bynes and the current state of her mental health. Bynes was released from a nearly decade-long conservatorship last year.
But in this week’s headlines and fan reactions, something was present that was missing when Bynes was in the news during her 2013 public breakdown: compassion.
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Bynes was scheduled to attend 90s Con, a fan convention celebrating the pop culture of the decade last weekend. It would have been her first public appearance since the end of her conservatorship last spring.
She didn’t show up.
Bynes began acting professionally at 7 years old – and is best known for roles on Nickelodeon in “All That” and “The Amanda Show,” and films including “What a Girl Wants” and “She’s The Man.”
Fame at a young age can have a profound impact on one’s mental health, saysDonna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist specializing in celebrity mental health and CEO of wellness community “Already Famous.”
It’s very difficult to grow into a grounded, mature adult when you haven’t had the chance to experience an actual childhood,” Rockwell says, adding that “child stars often miss these important steps. This can lead to mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, or a constant state of longing, focusing on external validation rather than internal self-worth.”
No one understands those struggles more than fellow celebrities, who have shared their concern.
“I’m heartbroken for Amanda Bynes,” Former “One Tree Hill” actress Sophia Bush tweeted, criticizing the entertainment industry’s treatment of women and girls in the early 2000s. “Trauma is a lifelong beats to battle once inflicted. I hope she can get the support she needs and deserves. … We’re rooting for you, Amanda.”
Disney Channel alum Christy Carlson Romano tweeted her “prayers for Amanda Bynes,” adding: “We should be sending love her way even if it’s just in how we plan to help a new generation of young artists.”
“I’ve just been praying for her,” Bynes’ former “All That” costar Kel Mitchell, who recently appeared at 90s Con, told Entertainment Tonight. Bynes was slated to appear but her plans changed ahead of the event.
The stars reactions have mirrored fans’ reactions, with many sharing well-wishes for Bynes. “I love Amanda Bynes and I hope she gets the help she needs and deserves. Very troubling to hear,” on Twitter user wrote.
How we talk about Amanda Bynes matters, experts say
Kali Hobson, a board-certified psychiatrist, said ridicule, rather than compassion, has been a common reaction to high-profile stars in crisis.
“When you are a celebrity, your mental health challenges are put on display to the public,” Hobson previously told USA TODAY. “You are often criticized, made fun of, chastised, and compared to others. People who don’t know you or your history are making judgments and labeling you with diagnoses.”
Not only can this constant coverage worsen a celebrity’s own mental health, but it also perpetuates the stigma for others: that those with mental health issues are dangerous, weak-minded, lazy or attention-seeking – and as a result, deserve to be laughed at.
“People become emboldened to make fun of celebrities because they feel so far removed from their life and they almost see them as not human; a fictional character,” Hobson previously explained. “But… if people see celebrities being ridiculed and demonized in the media, why would anyone else feel that it was safe to be open and seek help?”
As soon as we begin to objectify real people, “we completely remove the individual’s personality, their true selves,” Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy from Fear,” previously told USA TODAY. “We don’t know what their fears are, what their hopes are, what their dreams are, what their sadness is. We just see whatever we want.”
That could all be starting to change, experts believe.
“A deeper understanding of mental health challenges has grown over the past few years,” Rockwell says. “When someone is suffering from emotional pain, compassion is the obvious response, whether the person is someone we know, or a famous celebrity.”
When it comes to public figures and mental health, Manly explained it is often difficult for those constantly in the spotlight to seek help.
“People think: ‘Oh, you’re a star or you have money. Therefore, you should be happy. You have all of the money in the world. How could you possibly have problems? … If you’re depressed, go see a therapist or check yourself into rehab if you need to.'”
Ultimately, experts say, the language people use to talk about celebrities’ issues matters, because it sends messages to others about how their own similar experiences could be received.
“In our culture, famous people represent the most successful and celebrated among us,” Rockwell says. “The way we treat them is how we end up treating others in our own lives. If we learn to have compassion for celebrity mental health challenges, rather than mocking or ridiculing them, then perhaps we will have more empathy for others who suffer, as well.”
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Contributing: Jenna Ryu