#FREEBRITNEY and the Philosophy of Psychiatry: What questions does it raise?

In 2008, after a series of public mental breakdowns, Britney Spears was placed into a conservatorship. This conservatorship prevented Spears from making any of her own decisions, from whether she could get married to how often she could see her children. Over a decade later, it has come to the public’s attention through the #FREEBRITNEY movement that this conservatorship is abusive. Conservatorships are reserved for those who have significant limited cognitive capacity. However, clearly Spears does not come under this description, as she still able to work. The high profile court case around the removal of Jamie Spears’ from the conservatorship has brought public awareness to issues within the philosophy of psychiatry that are not normally considered by the public.

‘Women have traditionally been forced to submit to men within societal structure.’

The most prominent problem that has arisen from the case is sexism. Women have traditionally been forced to submit to men within societal structure. Woman experience most sexism within medicine and the music industry. When seeking help for their ailments, women are often dismissed as doctors believe they are overexaggerating. Mental illness has also often been used as a tool to enforce certain behaviors in women rather than as a tool to help them. In the music industry, women have often been exposed to sexual harassment and have struggled with a harsher critique from media. Part of these criticisms often involve the fact the star is a women and calls into question their mental illness.

‘A more complex understanding of sexism and societal structure is needed.’

The pressing question around sexism is whether Britney would have been placed within a conservatorship if she was a Brian instead. Individuals have argued that this is a clear instance of sexism by drawing comparisons to Kayne West. West has experienced mental health problems yet there has been little intervention. However, It should be noted that there are other female stars who have had high profile mental health problems (Miley Cyrus) and have not been placed within conservatorships. Others thus suggest the complexity of Spears’ conservatorship may not be reducible to an instance of sexism. However, it can be, but a more complex understanding of sexism and societal structure is needed.

There are questions over the ethicalness of a conservatorship. Initially, conservatorships were introduced in order to protect those who had limited cognitive capacity. For instance, those with severe dementia. There have been instances where vulnerable people have been persuaded to marry individuals they do not know and the individual runs off with all of the money. Conservatorships prevent this by having a conservator who has to approve such decisions.

‘Some individuals argue that conservatorships should not be used due to the abuse that can arise from them. ‘

However, for some, conservatorships have no place. The evidence they provide for this is the ability to abuse the system, which is evident in the case of Spears. The reason for the attention around the case is the controversy of how Spears’ father, Jamie Spears’, has been running it. He is accused of using Britney as a ‘cash cow’, where he forces her to work but is the primary beneficiary of the money earnt by being the conservator of the Britney’s estate. Britney has not been able to challenge this arrangement due to the idea that she is not mentally stable enough to make her own decisions. She has no right to access legal representation nor have a choice about whether her father should remain in charge of the estate. Thus, her father has managed to get away with stealing Britney’s money via this inappropriately placed conservatorship. While the most popular example, Spears cannot be the only example of an individual being trapped for the benefits of others through the use of a conservatorship. Hence, some individuals argue that conservatorships should not be used due to the abuse that can arise from them.

‘The price of ignoring an individual’s suffering is worse.’

Some anti-psychiatrists have used similar examples to argue that mental illnesses do not exist. This can vary from claiming that mental illness is dependent on values only, to arguing that mental illness and physical illness do not depend in the same paradigm to mental illness being reducible to a reference to the same struggle inherent within life that everyone experiences. However, this is a difficult stance to maintain. A broken system does not necessarily mean that the problem it is trying to fix isn’t real. Further, for some, to challenge the existence of mental illness does even more harm than the abuse that arises from acknowledging its existence. The price of ignoring an individuals suffering is worse.

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Student studying MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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