Amanda Bynes and the double standard of mental illness

When Robin Williams died, we promised to tackle the stigma of mental illness. So why do we mock Amanda Bynes?

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

When Robin Williams committed suicide this summer, the public reaction was palpable. One of the world’s greatest comics had been defeated by his private demons—namely, depression and bipolar disorder—and the public vowed to battle mental illness. Williams’s 25-year-old daughter, Zelda, was especially vocal in this regard. “My dad openly fought depression his whole life,” she tweeted on World Mental Health Day. “Mental illness is often misunderstood and misrepresented, but that’s starting to change. Let’s end the stigma.” Mental health activists and well-wishers on social media have embraced Zelda’s proposition wholeheartedly.

And yet the goodwill displayed toward Williams and his family has been tainted of late by the ill will displayed toward another mentally ill star: 28-year-old actress Amanda Bynes. Robin Williams may have fought depression “openly his whole life,” but he suffered mostly in silence. When he died, it seemed everyone wanted to know how someone so jovial and together on the surface could be so profoundly unhappy. Amanda Bynes seems neither jovial nor together. She is explicitly mentally ill. Yet, despite our promise to Zelda Williams, we don’t appear to care.

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The actress, who landed back in hospital last month after being arrested on suspicion of a DUI, has been in and out of psychiatric care since she began behaving erratically two years ago. (Last year, the actress was arrested after allegedly throwing a bong out the window of her 36th-floor New York apartment.) Bynes was checked into a psychiatric facility in California, but she is still the butt of jokes in the media; outrageous inflammatory tweets that she writes, some of them racist, are taken at face value by many, as though she is sane and merely prejudiced. “Is it too much to hope that she’ll drop the slurs?” Buzzfeed asked last year in earnest after Bynes tweeted a series of racist and nonsensical statements at Rihanna. “While someone this troubled deserves our sympathy, her less-than-subtle bigotry is making Bynes harder and harder to defend.”

A former child star who hosted her own sketch comedy show at 13, Bynes is suspected to be schizophrenic. She recently accused her father of sexual abuse and retracted the statement shortly after, again on Twitter. “My dad never did any of those things,” she wrote. “The microchip in my brain made me say those things, but he’s the one that ordered them to microchip me.”

These are the proclamations of a person who needs serious help, yet they’re consistently written up with the same mocking, unserious tone used when Britney Spears shaved her head in 2007 or when Superman movie star Margot Kidder, a long-time sufferer of bipolar disorder, ended up on the streets in the 1990s. Sam Dylan Finch, an activist with bipolar disorder who writes openly about his experience, believes sexism is at play in the public’s insensitivity toward Bynes. “I think it’s rooted in a tradition of writing women off as hysteric and giving a little more validity to men’s suffering,” he says. In other words, we may perceive a woman “acting out” as typical, whereas a man—especially one who suffers privately—we may regard as strong and stoic. Our ridicule of Bynes, Finch writes on his blog (noting that 70 per cent of people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder attempt suicide) is “fun and games until someone dies.”

As a one-time fan of The Amanda Show (I watched it almost every day after school in the late ’90s), Bynes’s current public state is surreal. Her primary sketch on the show involved an obsessive character named Penelope Taynt. Played by a loosely disguised Bynes, Taynt was the actress’s self-proclaimed “No. 1 fan,” a pathetic and delusional stalker whom the actress was repeatedly evading and we were repeatedly laughing at. Now it seems Bynes has morphed into a version of that character; a young woman unravelling before a rapt, smiling audience. Williams’s tragic death may have proved we sympathize with those who suffer in silence. But Bynes’s life is proof we still gawk and grimace at those who suffer in plain sight.


Amanda Bynes and the double standard of mental illness

  1. We pay lip service to each other, but try and get help from Health Canada that is in the patient’s interest and you get nothing but run around.

  2. I feel sorry that Amanda Bynes is openly depressed and that Robin Williams was depressed for decades. Mental illness is another terrible ailment that affects millions. But Emma; what is your point?
    This is not a ‘peeing contest’. Just because you are familiar with a lady named Amanda Bynes (which most of us are not) you again show your bias of ‘men vs women’. It’s the same old Emma.
    Of the millions of people that have mental illnesses statistics show that way more women are being treated then men…maybe you could delve into some research of the various reasons?
    By the way; did you know that next to no Orientals go to psychiatrists?
    Time to look at bigger pictures!

  3. When Robin Williams died, we promised to tackle the stigma of mental illness. So why do we mock Amanda Bynes?

    We stopped claiming the “stigma” rape. Why, because naming it accurately, discrimination, there was something concrete we could do about it.

    Why do we call it the stigma of mental illnesses?

    Because we as yet do not have an interest in naming it accurately.

    When we do, there will be something we can do about it.

  4. I don’t think gender has anything to do with it, I think it’s more about ignorance of mental illnesses. Charlie Sheen has been treated like a circus sideshow with his strange behaviour, when I think it’s obvious that he was suffering from a serious mental illness at the time. When people with bipolar disorder come down from a manic episode and realise as they descend into depression that the world has been finding their struggle with mental illness just hilarious, it can only make them feel even more hopeless and wretched. But it’s all fun and games until someone commits suicide, right?

  5. Oh, and don’t forget those who are the most stigmatised mentally ill people – those who aren’t celebrities, who don’t have wealth or supportive friends and family around them. They end up in prison or freezing to death on the streets as “bag ladies” and “bums”, and most people don’t care what happens to them as long as they’re moved on and kept out of sight.

  6. “Schizophrenia receives a tremendous amount of unfair, negative attention, which I feel only strengthens the existing negative perception of this complex and terribly misunderstood illness. Many of the references to schizophrenia that we see, read or hear about, from our various sources of media, are far too often filled with inaccurate information and/or false and stigmatizing, or as I prefer to say, discriminatory depictions. People tend to fear things that they don’t understand, and I think that education, learning the true facts from reliable sources, is the key to understanding and thus eliminating the damaging discrimination/stigma that surrounds schizophrenia.
    Every person, no matter what their illness, deserves the best possible journey to recovery; one that includes support, compassion and understanding. I truly believe that discrimination/stigma, is one of the biggest barriers to recovery, for those with schizophrenia”.
    Those barriers will never come down if people continue to rely on the media for their knowledge of this terrible illness. Schizophrenia is an illness, not a source of entertainment.

  7. Sam Dylan Finch, an activist with bipolar disorder who writes openly about his experience, believes sexism is at play in the public’s insensitivity toward Bynes. “I think it’s rooted in a tradition of writing women off as hysteric and giving a little more validity to men’s suffering,” he says.
    This is obscene. You’re comparing women’s feelings to men’s lives.
    You’re talking about a live woman, and a dead man. There is–you may be certain–a double standard with regard to mental illness, and our failure to address it results in a male suicide rate viz a viz women of 3.4 to 1 in Canada; the ratio is worse in the US, where 26,000 men died last year, and 7,000 women. That’s more people than are killed in car accidents. A far higher percentage of men who commit suicide receive no counseling, How many men’s lives would we save without this double standard with regard to treating men who suffer from mental illness?

    If you have an actual interest in the subject of mental illness and suicide, and are actually interested in our double standard, start with Gender Differences in Suicide in Wikipedia, and The Silent Epidemic of Male Suicide at http://www.bcmj.org/articles/silent-epidemic-male-suicide. Work from there.
    Both articles, of course, talk about mental illness.
    Don’t ever disgrace the subject and its victims again by comparing women’s suffering to men’s deaths.

  8. The author is grasping at straws trying to pull gender into the equation. I remember the mockery Robert Downie Jr used to receive. People like Amanda Bynes who make spectacles of themselves attract attention whereas people like Robin Williams who suffered in silence don’t. It’s that simple.

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