Media coverage shouldn’t make a joke of mental illness

Mental health issues can affect anybody—from young people to celebrities


Contrary to what the media would have you believe, there’s nothing funny about someone suffering through a mental health crisis.

The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears is one of the best things to come out of quarantine. Released on Feb. 5, it traces Spears’s rise to fame, exploitation at the hands of the media, and loss of personal freedoms. It’s also an examination of how Spears struggled through mental health crises made worse by invasive paparazzi, insatiable gossip magazines, and her money-hungry family. With many teens and young adults reporting higher feelings of depression and anxiety than in years before, The Times documentary brings necessary attention to society’s willingness to trivialize mental health.

Mental health issues can hurt anyone. In Framing Britney Spears, Spears’s mental health spirals at the hands of other celebrities like Justin Timberlake, a man who monetized their breakup and vilified her before the world with allegations of cheating and music video lookalikes. When Timberlake released his song “Cry me a River,” people bought the narrative he was selling without considering how such vitriol might hurt Spears.

After her bitter custody battle became news, Spears became the brunt of jokes. It became socially acceptable for talk show hosts and comedians to roast her at every turn. When she shaved her head and bludgeoned a car window with an umbrella, no one was willing to stop the jokes by treating her like a real person. Laughing at Spears’s expense became its own genre of comedy. 

At this time, anyone willing to do better was an outlier. In an opening monologue from his show in 2007, Craig Ferguson’s defence of Spears was met with awkward laughs. Ferguson criticized the tendency to mindlessly laugh at others’ misfortunes without considering the seriousness of their situations. Unfortunately, he delivered this monologue to an audience primed to find Spears’s mental health crisis amusing.

Kanye West is another victim to the media circus. His run for US President after years spent rapping appeared funny after a concerning press conference, especially compared to then-President Donald Trump. Everyone seemed to forget West’s public struggles with mental illness after the death of his mother and turned the other cheek when he confessed to no longer taking his medication for bipolar disorder. Rather than give him the professional help he needed, the media mocked him—some tabloids even leaked photos of an emotional argument between West and his then-wife Kim Kardashian.

Amid a sea of articles criticizing West’s perceived narcissism, Black-ish’s Jenifer Lewis called West’s run “a wake-up call for empathy,” asking that celebrities be treated like human beings. Her plea went mostly unanswered. With much of the internet claiming West was simultaneously mentally ill and a narcissist, it somehow became acceptable to ridicule him. People should never have to earn sympathy for their mental illnesses to receive kindness.

As student morale continues to sink, the Framing Britney Spears documentary and Kanye West’s experiences are reminders that mental health is not a joke. A lack of empathy is not the problem, but rather a lack of critical thinking skills to recognize when it’s needed. Taking the time to decide someone’s downfall is more heartbreaking than humorous is key.

This consideration should apply to everyone, not just celebrities.

With social media filling the void created by pandemic burnout, young people have grown complacent in the face of worsening mental health crises. On TikTok, teens regularly joke about and often normalize feelings of depression and anxiety. People have every right to find humour in their own situations, but there are consequences to downplaying mental illness. When social media trends trivialize mental health, those who are suffering can often slip through the cracks.

As viewers, the Framing Britney Spears documentaryis a reminder we’re conditioned to laugh at things that often aren’t funny at all. Students should be wary of their tendencies to laugh away mental illness in the media and on social media platforms. It helps to spend time questioning why a joke is funny, especially because it so often isn’t. Mental health will never be taken seriously if society’s first inclination is to turn it into one big joke. 

Now more than ever is the time to check in with friends. Anyone can be fighting a battle and be in need of true support—even someone as famous as Britney Spears.


Amanda is a second-year Arts & Science student


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