Mental Health Stigma, or, Why We Should Leave Amanda Alone

Image from NY Daily News

Image from NY Daily News

The inevitable has happened: Amanda Bynes has been put under a 72-hour psychiatric hold in LA. Her parents are seeking conservatorship of her affairs after over a year of bizarre behavior, most recently in the form of some severe Twitter allegations* about her father abusing her as a child, and a tweet recanting her statement and blaming it on a microchip her father had implanted in her brain. This is a familiar story. One can easily remember Britney Spears going through similar issues, attacking paparazzi with an umbrella and famously shaving her head. Or Lindsay Lohan, landing in court case after court case, and suffering from substance abuse. But it’s all too easy to forget that these celebrities are people, and they are going through (or have gone through) some mental health issues. And so have a lot of people.

Mental health diagnoses can be things like phobias, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2012 approximately 4.1% of US adults were suffering, or had suffered, with a serious mental illness within the last year. That might sound small, but that only accounts for a serious mental health diagnosis. The same year approximately 18.6% of US adults had suffered from mental illness in general. That’s almost 1 in 5! So, in reality, what Bynes is going through is a common experience, and she doesn’t deserve increased scrutiny about her mental health state just because she’s been in the public eye since she was seven.* * Let’s make like Britney and leave Amanda alone.

There’s a well-known relationship between stress and mental disorders. Obviously, the attention a celebrity receives is bound to be stressful, but sources of stress can range from your job to childhood abuse. Some illnesses even appear to be more common in populations of people who experienced some type of extreme or chronic stress (1,2). Working full time and juggling school from a young age could definitely act as a source of stress, which may help to explain the incidence of mental disorder in people who were child stars (and, similarly, in impoverished populations; 3). Clinicians believe that something called the gene by environment interaction (G x E) plays a large role in mental illness (4,5). Basically, it means that even if you have some sort of hereditary vulnerability to a mental illness, it may take environmental stressors to actually end up developing the disorder. Illnesses like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be especially impacted by environmental factors. Soldiers deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom had a PTSD prevalence rate of 19.3% (6). Mental illness may ultimately be something that is brought out in us by our circumstances, rather than something that we “have.”

Regardless of how people come to be diagnosed with a mental disorder we know that mental illnesses are just as debilitating as physical ones. People living with mental illness may suffer from symptoms ranging from anhedonia and rumination, to things like delusions and suicidal thoughts. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 90% of the people who commit suicide have received a mental health diagnosis. One of the reasons may be the amount of stigma that surrounds mental illness. Stigma can reduce self-esteem and opportunities to be social, and increase stereotyping and prejudice (7). There is also evidence that populations that endure prejudice are more likely to develop a mental illness, illustrating the complexity of the G x E interaction (8, 9, 10).

So let’s give Bynes’ bizarre behavior a pass. If she’d been diagnosed with cancer, people would empathize with her and leave her alone instead of hounding her and putting her in the spotlight. Mental illness is just as serious as any illness a person can have, and it’s past time we learned to see people beyond their maladies, regardless.

*Anyone who knows me well will know how much it pained me to write the phrase “severe Twitter allegations.”

**Ok, ok, she was 8 in this one. Sue me. I didn’t have the energy to deep Google it. I also totally had those Barbie™ hair extensions.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, there is help. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, , or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255).


  1. Belle, D. (1990). Poverty and women’s mental health. American Psychologist, 45(3), 385-389.
  1. Horwitz, A. V., Widom, C. S., McLaughlin, J., & White, H. R. (2001). The impact of childhood abuse and neglect on adult mental health: A prospective study. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(2), 184-201.
  1. Liem, R., & Liem, J. (1978). Social class and mental illness reconsidered: The role of economic stress and social support. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 19(2), 139-156.
  1. Lesch, K. P. (2004). Gene-environment interaction and the genetics of depression. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 29(3), 174-184.
  1. van Os, J., Rutten, B. P. F., & Poulton, R. (2008). Gene-environment interactions in Schizophrenia: Review of epidemiological findings and future directions. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 34(6), 1066-1082.
  1. Hoge, C. W., Castro, C. A., Messer, S. C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D. I., & Koffman, R. L. (2004). Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems, and barriers to care. New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 13-22.
  1. Corrigan, P. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614-625.
  1. Mays, V. M., & Cochran, S. D. (2001). Mental health correlates of perceived discrimination among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 91(11), 1869-1876.
  2. Meyer, I. H. (1995). Minority stress and mental health in gay men. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 36(1), 38-56.
  3.  Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129(5), 674-697.



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