By JOCELYN NOVECK
You wouldn't think a pop culture diva like Britney Spears would exactly fit into the usual fare of discussions at the annual winter conference of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
But recently, on the sidelines of the gathering of hundreds of analysts from around the country, the topic did indeed arise — specifically those armchair diagnoses of the troubled starlet's mental health, popping up in celebrity magazines and tabloids everywhere.
"Britney's Mental Illness." "Bipolar Britney?" And so on. Under such headlines, articles have quoted psychiatrists or psychologists who've never met Spears, saying she exhibits "classic" signs of one disorder or another.
"I've been very upset about this," says Mark Smaller, a psychoanalyst from Chicago who attended the meetings at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "This idea of making a diagnosis of someone they've never met is completely inappropriate, and it gives mental health professionals a bad name."
Not to mention that it's medically wrong. Smaller says that to make any real diagnosis, it can take several thorough consultations with a patient at the very least.
"Trying to make such a diagnosis based purely on someone's behavior" — and worse, their behavior as portrayed selectively by the media — "is scientifically impossible," says Smaller, also director of the Neuropsychoanalysis Foundation.
Afraid of being labeled
But even more, say Smaller and other therapists, it could actually harm Spears by preventing her from getting the real help she needs. And on a broader scale, such therapy-by-media could discourage other troubled people from seeking care as well.
"It's not right to this one person," says Dr. Gail Saltz, a New York psychoanalyst and psychiatrist.
"But on a grander scheme, it also makes people afraid. They're afraid their confidence might be broken. Or they're afraid they'll become labeled. And labels are very frightening to people."
It's hardly a cause for wonder how coverage of Spears has reached the point of quibbling over which mental illness might afflict her. Each development in the Spears story has upped the scandal ante. From her "mommy foibles," to her head-shaving incident to her attacking a car with an umbrella to her painful custody dispute, her story gets so much more dire with each passing month.
But the moment that set headline writers into overdrive came on Jan. 3, when police were called to Spears' home after she refused to turn over her two boys to a representative for ex-husband Kevin Federline, locking herself in a room with one boy. Police, who said she was intoxicated, had to restrain her; paramedics were called and she was whisked away to a hospital, paparazzi in pursuit.
That's when TV's "Dr. Phil" McGraw paid a visit, then made public statements later that she was in dire need of medical and psychological help. Relatives said he'd crossed the line in talking about her publicly, and he later said he regretted making the statements.
But numerous other psychiatrists and mental health professionals have been quoted as well, speculating on what might afflict Spears. And that, says People magazine's deputy managing editor, Peter Castro, was a necessary element of the story.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
By JOCELYN NOVECK
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