Britney Spears has been in the news recently after the New York Times released its documentary Framing Britney Spears. It’s on Hulu and FX, which I don’t have access to, so I haven’t watched it. Still, I wanted to talk about the concept of conservatorship in relation to mental illness, because Britney represents an unusual example.
This all started with a very public meltdown in 2007. She was hospitalized, but her diagnosis was never publicly released. In 2008, a California court gave her father, Jamie Spears, conservatorship over her medical and financial affairs.
According to a CBS News article published on Feb. 11/21, conservatorship, which is known as guardianship in many other jurisdiction, happens when a judge appoints a conservator/guardian to care for someone who’s unable to care for themselves or manage their own finances.
Post-meltdown, she’s continued performing and has kept quiet about the conservatorship. Some fans have rallied around the #FreeBritney hashtag to criticize the ongoing restrictions on her freedom.
While Britney hasn’t publicly challenged the conservatorship, she has recently been open about challenging her father’s role. According to an article published in The New York Times on Feb. 12/21:
“My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father,” Britney Spears’s court-appointed lawyer told a judge in November. “She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.”
Earlier this month, Britney’s boyfriend of four years, Sam Asghari, was critical of Jamie Spears in an Instagram post. CBS News provides this quote from that post: “Now it’s important for people to understand that I have zero respect for someone trying to control our relationship and constantly throwing obstacles our way. In my opinion, Jamie is a total d**k.”
Conservatorship and mental illness
I find this whole thing fascinating. At least where I am, this is not usual for people with mental illness. Granted, laws vary from place to place, but adult guardianship laws where I am in Canada sound pretty similar to conservatorship in California. I worked in mental health care for 15 years, and I came across very few people under adult guardianship orders.
Britney is clearly very high-functioning in certain very specific aspects of her life related to performing. How does one maintain functioning at that level in that area yet not have the capacity to make adult decisions?
While her diagnosis isn’t publicly known, bipolar disorder seems like a reasonable guess for the sake of argument. And let’s guess that the worry is that she’ll get manic and blow all her money. It’s hard to imagine that conservatorship would be the least restrictive means possible to prevent that outcome. Does California not have some kind of outpatient commitment or community treatment order system that could take care of some of that without taking away her rights as an adult? Conservatorship seems very heavy-handed for might-get-manic. At least in theory there would need to be an ongoing, consistent lack of capacity for that to be in place.
If she is, in fact, incapacitated, how appropriate is it to keep up a hardcore performing schedule? Is that her father taking advantage of her?
As for Britney herself, her social media posts have a childlike quality to them. There are a few things in this Instagram video from October 2020 that make me question whether all is hunky dory.
“Taking the time to learn and be a normal person” is a bit odd.
So many things are odd about this. But I do hope that this is the most appropriate option for Britney and it’s not an overreach. In general terms, though, I would say that this level of removal of rights isn’t appropriate for the vast majority of people with mental illness
What are your thoughts, either pertaining to Britney in particular or conservatorship and mental illlness in general?
Visit the mental health resource directory page for a collection of lots of great mental health resources.