Britney Spears' Conservatorship Highlights a Long-Standing Problem Around Disability and Mental Illness
Disability advocates argue that while the circumstances surrounding Spears' conservatorship are "horrific," they're more common than you think.
When Britney Spears delivered an impassioned statement to a Los Angeles court on Wednesday, people listened — and #FreeBritney supporters experienced the bittersweet validation of finally knowing the pop star's truth. But while many people are rightfully calling Spears' situation "abusive" and "oppressive" — one thing you might not have gleaned from her story is that it's not as uncommon as you might've originally believed.
In a TikTok video posted on Thursday, writer and disability advocate Imani Barbarin of the website, Crutches and Spice, argues that there's been a fair amount of gaslighting from the non-disabled community toward the disabled community. People have been implying that Spears' 13-year-long conservatorship is extreme and exclusive due to her celebrity status, according to Barbarin. "Nobody's saying her situation is not horrific, but it's not unique," she says in the video. "This is something disabled people are scared of all the time."
Barbarin goes on to explain that there are instances in which disabled people "ask the wrong question to the wrong person and wind up in a conservatorship or guardianship." (And that's where the gaslighting comes in, with people suggesting this never happens.) She also says that while plenty of uninformed commentators are dissecting the Spears situation and holding it up as a shocking example of celebrity injustice, "this could literally happen to anybody with a mental health diagnosis or not." (Related: Britney Spears Spoke Out for the First Time Since Her Conservatorship Hearing)
While Spears' turmoil shines a light and brings awareness to conservatorship — something many people know little about — 2017 data from the U.S. Justice Department showed that there were about 1.3 million active guardian or conservatorship cases in the country at that time. A conservatorship involves assigning court-ordered authority and responsibility to a person or persons to manage the affairs of someone deemed unable to make their own decisions, according to the Judicial Branch of California. (Conservatorships and guardianships are roughly the same thing and often used interchangeably.) In Spears' case, her conservatorship began in 2008 after she had several public breakdowns, and her father Jamie Spears petitioned the Los Angeles Supreme Court for an emergency, "temporary conservatorship." In the years since Spears has tried to end the arrangement but has been unsuccessful thus far.
"Conservatorships are meant to protect someone who, the court deems, can't protect themselves — so that would mean mentally or physically," says Alyssa Mass, M.A., M.F.T., a marital and family therapist based in La Jolla, California. "They can and do serve an important purpose for those who need them but, like anything, they can be abused."
Mass says the potential for conservatorship misuse exists because of the grey area inherent to the definition of "mentally fit" and the various ways that phrase can be interpreted — or misinterpreted. "The legal debates around the meaning of 'sanity' have been going on long before our legal system existed," she says. "And what we define, as a society, as mental illness is constantly in flux. What the public saw, years ago, was clearly a young person experiencing an enormous amount of pain. Ultimately, in a case like Britney's, you have to wonder who was her advocate? Did she have one? Because if it's not in the best interest of those running the conservatorship to end it well…then why would they? And you have a clear, and very tragic, abuse of power."
"The Britney case brings to light so many issues for us to reflect upon as a society," says Aubry Alvarez-Bakker, Ph.D. a licensed and board-certified behavior analyst and psychologist whose clients are primarily neurodiverse individuals and/or individuals identifying with a disability. "One very specific example is how we as a society presume competence — or incompetence — when it comes to those with a mental health diagnosis." (Related: Why We Need to Stop Speculating About Other People's Mental Health, According to Therapists)
Alvarez-Bakker says Barbarin's video raises an important point about how society tends to presume incompetence about members of the disabled community, especially when it comes to non-speakers or those with cognitive disabilities. "This can manifest in microaggressions, such as using baby talk to communicate with a disabled person, or gaslighting, such as not validating how very common conservatorships are for disabled people," she says. "These actions normalize the marginalization of those with a mental health diagnosis and contribute to stigmas that are often applied across the board in disabled spaces. If we as a society are startled by Britney's experience, we must acknowledge and validate the similar experiences of disabled people all around us."
Los Angeles-based lawyer, Harry Nelson, J.D., says that as a health care regulatory attorney, he's regularly called on to address disability rights issues, and says he feels Barbarin's video "is on target." "Many people up who are up in arms over Britney Spears's abuse by conservatorship have never lost a minute's sleep over the long-standing infringement on the broader violation of rights of the disabled in the past," he explains. "There are many cases where we impose our moral judgments as to how people should live in a way that disrespects the differently-abled."
The U.S. legal system as it stands struggles to strike the right balance between protecting people who may be at risk because of mental health or cognitive challenges and respecting their personal rights, according to Nelson. "We rely on an outdated process that has failed to keep up with evolving norms of respect for personal liberty, and allows judges to impose often outdated and insensitive standards," he says. "We are living in a time when overprescribing and overmedication, for example, are receiving overdue attention and alternative approaches to wellness are gaining acceptance — and yet people under conservatorship are denied the right to make their own choices. Likewise, attitudes toward parenthood in our society have changed — for everyone except the conserved."
Not all legal experts believe conservatorships — Spears' or otherwise — are draconian or overly punitive in most cases. Lawyer David A. Esquibias, J.D., who has represented actress Amanda Bynes, who FTR, is also under a conservatorship, says the arrangements are made with thoughtful intention and careful deliberation and shouldn't be viewed as an inevitable fate for anyone with a disability.
"Conservatorships are not universal among disabled people," says Esquibias. "A conservatorship is only for individuals who are substantially unable to manage their own financial resources, resist fraud or undue influence from others; or are unable to make their own medical decisions as determined by a licensed medical practitioner. Considerable evidence is required before a judge imposes a conservatorship. A conservatorship is not a knee-jerk reaction to a disabled person's circumstance. Judges are highly educated, conscientious people who do their best to make the right decision in the best interest of the proposed conservatee." (Related: #AbledsAreWeird Exposes the BS People with Disabilities Endure On a Daily Basis)
While that may be how things should operate under ideal or standard circumstances, Nelson says matters can be more complicated in practice. The problem is that the U.S. legal system doesn't hold conservators or judges accountable when people are placed in a harmful conservatorship, says Nelson. "At the same time, our strained public resources leave the disabled without meaningful defense from guardians ad litem [a court-appointed guardian for a person during a case] who are supposed to protect them."
Nelson says that because of the limitations and shortcomings of the U.S. legal system, the allegations of abuse and harm that Spears brought up in her statement are not as uncommon as you'd like to think. And to Barbarin's point, they're not unique to people of a certain status.
"There are many cases where people are genuinely at risk of being preyed upon or of self-harm and conservatorships are appropriate, but Barbarin's right that there are also way too many cases where well-intended advocates overreach and violate the rights of the disabled," he says. "Brtiney's case shines a light on a much bigger problem that needs attention for the broader disability community."
Spears' situation also serves as an example of how difficult it can be for someone to shed the label of "mental instability," which is still hugely stigmatized in our society, adds Mass.
"If someone recovers from cancer, we say they 'beat it' and talk about how strong they are — we need to allow for that same conversation around mental health as well," she says. "Who hasn't gone through a tough time in life? Most people would be pretty relieved the world didn't watch, magnify, make fun of, or remind them of every misstep they took. When we, as a society and culture, allow for people to be vulnerable, accept their falls without judgment and support them in standing back up by helping deepen their understanding of themselves so that they can make more thoughtful decisions – that's when we will really have created change in the world."
Barbarin ends her video with a pointed challenge to viewers: "The question you need to ask yourself is, do you think there's a hierarchy of disability and a point at which you care about the disabled and not, and do you care now because it's the first time you think it could happen to you?" As everyone continues to celebrate transparency around mental health issues and advocacy for those who struggle with a spectrum of challenges, it's a question worth considering. (Related: Britney Spears Opens Up About Overcoming "Crippling Anxiety")
"Most of us certainly have good intentions and are truly moved by Britney's journey," says Alvarez-Bakker. "But we have to remember that it is not just intention that matters, it is impact — and we can begin to dismantle these oppressive structures by first validating that the experience is not unique and that we should allow our compassion and desire for change to extend out beyond."