In this video interview, Jessi Gold, MD, MS, assistant professor and director of wellness, engagement, and outreach in the department of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, discusses how we can mindfully and responsibly approach the mental health themes of Britney Spears’ new memoir, The Woman In Me.
The following is a transcript of her remarks:
Britney Spears has a memoir that is coming out on [October] 24th, which is called The Woman In Me. It’s the first time that we’re really hearing from Britney directly.
She’s been in the news a lot her whole life, especially more recently around her conservatorship, and so a lot of headlines have been coming out as stories leak about the book. And people have been wondering what that means about her mental health, what that means about how we view mental health, and how we should be talking about it.
When you’re reading something on social media, I think there’s a desire to look at it like we used to through the lens of the 2000s information about mental health and be like, “Ooh, what does that behavior mean? And can I learn more about it?” And you get yourself really caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm of the salaciousness of the story.
Then you realize that we’re a lot better than that — and we can do a lot better than that. What I mean by that is maybe you’re drawn in because of the headline, because of the story, but maybe now you also realize that that person is a person and mental health is complicated and life challenges are complicated. And there’s usually a lot more to something than whatever can be told in a quick post or a quick story.
So trying to thoughtfully consume the news and not just say, “Ooh, that’s exciting, let’s talk about that,” and then use it more like gossip like we used to when we used to consume gossip and tabloids about, especially, someone like Britney Spears. I think we could do better for her now and really consume her stories with thoughtfulness and empathy, and think about mental health in the context that all of us are trying to grow and understand it and say, “People struggle.”
Sometimes struggles look like behaviors we don’t always understand, but it’s not our job to try to understand them. Our job is to hear the stories that people are telling us and respect them for telling the story to us. Kindly reply, give them space, try to not judge them, and try to not make it harder than it needs to be.
They chose to share their story, of course, so you have some right to comment. But I think we just need to try to be better at contextualizing things and be better at empathy and kindness, I think, in the context of especially sharing a mental health challenge or a mental health story.
I think people look at someone like Britney Spears and they say, “Well, how does that story relate to me? I’m never going to have that much scrutiny or anything like that happen to me.”
And I think, if you’re a kid right now, you’re growing up with social media and you’re growing up under a lot more scrutiny than someone like I did — and someone like Britney even did, even though she was in the paparazzi, but paparazzi was very different than social media. We’re under scrutiny more than we realize and [we’re] constantly online and in a place that people can comment, like, judge, change our self-esteem, all of that.
So I think what you can learn from a story is that how that affected her could be a way that it could affect you — to a lesser extent, probably, but it’s sort of how public scrutiny affects our mental health in general. And I think that’s worth knowing. I think it’s important to look at how people’s judgment of our behaviors affects our own mental health.
I think we could do better in a lot of ways with how we view what behaviors people do in public and how we then assume things about them from it. So there’s a lot of comments about things like when she shaved her head, and she writes about it. I think when we were younger and it was in the tabloids, a lot of those are the headlines that really stigmatized mental health to begin with and really made people say, “If someone has a behavior that I don’t understand, that person must be crazy.”
That’s not really helpful. That just makes it harder for somebody who’s struggling to say, “I’m actually struggling and this is what’s going on with me.”
We want to be looking at behaviors in context, and we want to be kind about them, and we want to be better. And I’m hoping that having the lens of 20 years of something like this could make us better.
I also think that somebody like Britney Spears has had interactions with the mental healthcare system that probably weren’t as good as they could have been. I think we also have to view all that in the context of her life and her experience. One of the hard things about lived experiences and stories is that they are just that person’s story. You want to be careful to not apply them to everyone.
So just because one person had a bad experience on a medication or a bad experience with a psychiatrist or a bad experience in the hospital, it doesn’t mean you won’t have a good one. And I worry sometimes when people see stories — especially of famous people or they see stories on social media where people really had a hard time — it becomes hard to then ask for help yourself, because you worry that can happen to you.
The bad stories tend to be louder than the good ones. We often don’t hear of the people who had an amazing time in their inpatient stay and are doing really well now. We hear about the person who didn’t have a great experience and really is angry at psychiatry as a result of it.
So I just think it’s important that lived experiences also get paired with mental health expertise and that you realize that one person’s story is one person’s story. While that’s true and valid and those experiences definitely matter, you just have to be careful about saying, “That is what’s going to happen to me. I can’t get help because of what happened to that person.”