Zo Gross has been watching Amanda Bynes since age 6, starting with the young actress’ days on Nickelodeon’s “All That” and later “The Amanda Show.” The Ellicott City writer even adopted one of Bynes’s variety show characters — awkward, bespectacled megafan Penelope Taynt — as an imaginary friend, because “I had no imagination.”
Two decades later, Gross, now 28, still has a connection to Bynes, but one that is very much real.
“She has bipolar disorder and so do I.”
Back in the bad old days of the 2000s, the tabloids treated celebrities such as Bynes — who last week called 911 for help while having a mental health episode on the streets of Los Angeles — like pretty circus animals, rather than very young women struggling publicly in real time.
And readers ate it up, demanding more meat, more humiliation. So it seems like progress that everyday people like Gross are so comfortable sharing their diagnoses, or to see folks on Twitter commending Bynes for having the agency to ask for help herself, rather than mocking her.
“I think my age group has grown up into the arc of mental health awareness,” said Gross, whose bipolar disorder was diagnosed two years ago. “It’s encouraging that she called 911. It sounds like it was a dangerous episode, and she has such awareness to hit the brakes and do something about it.”
I’ve written about celebrity and culture for 30 years, and I’ve seen real progress in the way we discuss mental health in the media. In the wake of documentaries like “Framing Britney Spears” or Selena Gomez’s “My Mind & Me,” we’re aware that our vulture-like appetites caused real damage. Those same efforts to destigmatize mental health have made it possible for us to talk about things we never would have back then, like abortion or menopause. And I’m grateful.
But is that enough?
Gross, and professionals like Dr. Carmen López-Arvizu, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kennedy Krieger Institute, don’t think so.
“I don’t think the pushback is strong enough,” López-Arvizu said. “Selena Gomez chose to speak up, which is absolutely something to admire, but others like Amanda Bynes or Britney Spears were not asked and were recorded anyway. We say we are aware. But we’re not talking about services. We know we have a mental health crisis, but what about investing in a solution? We don’t do that. What are we going to do about it?”
That’s the question, right? We need to diagnose these issues early, to encourage treatment, to normalize asking for help. A school district in Allegany County recently told parents it would limit excused absences for mental health treatment outside of the school. As a society we still aren’t at the point where “mental health is just called ‘health,’” Gross said. “The brain is just another organ, just another part of your body that’s sick. We have a long way to go before we’re treating this like a heart attack.”
López-Arvizu thinks that our failure to do that has continued the stigma of mental illness, whether we’ve evolved or not. She noted, for instance, that female celebrities are still more likely to get the tabloid treatment because we still don’t take them, or their situations, seriously. And it won’t happen “until we as a society respect mental health diagnoses and stop making fun of someone being mentally ill. It’s all fun and games until it’s someone you know,” she said. “And it stops being funny.”
What’s more, she’s concerned that all this awareness can backfire if it comes with shame, which can “deter people from accessing care. [The media] have a way of telling people these things in a gossipy way, implying that [Bynes] is a problem, that she has some sort of defect. She was brave enough in that moment to realize that she needed help out there and had to ask for it.”
I asked López-Arvizu about the Allegany County situation, which has parents fighting for the right to get their kids the help they need, even during school hours if necessary, just like they would if they were being treated for a broken bone. “We know that there is a shortage of providers. If the only appointment available for my child is at 11 in the morning, I’m gonna take it,” she said. “I think there needs to be an understanding of the severity of mental illness. Just because it’s invisible to the eyes doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
There have been some changes — the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill last year requiring mental health treatment to be treated the same as other illnesses in terms of school absences. And we’re talking about this so much more openly. But people like Gross and López-Arvizu will tell you that we’re not there yet.
“It’s important to understand and prioritize treatment, with an early investment in it,” López-Arvizu said. “There is no quick fix. Mental health treatment is not magic. It’s a process. When you break a leg, you’re not expected to run a marathon the next day. You repair and rehab it. You can’t recover mental health in a day.”
And our attitudes about mental health can’t be repaired overnight, either. But I want to believe they can, if we’re willing to back up our talk with action. We have to. We’re not going to survive if we don’t.