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#FreeBritney News Coverage Deters Those Needing Conservatorships

The media’s one-sided, negative coverage may have a chilling effect.

Key points

  • While calling attention to flaws in the conservatorship system, news coverage has ignored that Ms. Spears’ situation remains unusual.
  • For those with serious mental illness, conservatorships are, in fact, often lifesaving, not just for individuals but entire families.
  • Those who would benefit from conservatorships are being deterred by the news, and trustworthy professional conservators are feeling attacked.
  • Newsmakers must offer a more nuanced perspective instead of villainizing conservatorships across the board.
 Kobby Dagan/Shutterstock
Source: Source: Kobby Dagan/Shutterstock

Since Britney Spears’ conservatorship battle transitioned from tabloid fodder to front-page news, media companies have rushed to capitalize on the public’s interest in her specific case and conservatorships in general. The New York Times followed up on its original documentary, Framing Britney Spears, with Battle Over Britney, and made it available via Hulu, while Netflix introduced its own documentary, Britney Vs. Spears. At the same time, CNN and other media giants created microsites with live updates tracking developments during her court dates, akin to what we see during national elections.

This frenzy of media activity reflects the unusual, questionable and dramatic nature of Ms. Spears’ situation. The coverage has rightly called attention to flaws in a system, in which one of the world’s most visible, wealthy and seemingly powerful entertainers could become ensnared, without even the ability of retaining her own counsel. Already we are seeing attempts at reform. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed into law what pundits are calling the #FreeBritney Bill, and US Senators have held hearings on potential problems within the conservatorship system.

While such measures could have a positive impact in rare cases that have parallels to Ms. Spears’, I have real concerns about where this movement is going. Already in my mental health legal practice, I have seen a significant uptick in family members who – citing #FreeBritney – are reluctant or unwilling to petition the court for guardianships (what conservatorships are called in New York and other states) on behalf of loved ones. This might seem like a victory to some, but those who know the intricacies of these situations might think differently.

The families who come to me for help typically have loved ones with serious, debilitating mental illnesses – diagnoses that make it challenging for individuals to maintain their lucidity and self-awareness, and stay in treatment and on medication. Before they find me, they’ve often explored every conceivable avenue of help for their loved ones, only to watch them struggle to stay employed; show signs of perpetual self-harm; deplete limited funds; and cycle in and out of hospitals and jails. Family members are at their wits end and mostly unable to intervene, shut out of a system that has come to value the rights of patients over their safety and wellbeing. They cry in my office, afraid of what the future holds and unable to focus on their jobs and other family commitments.

For these individuals, conservatorships can be lifesaving. They provide the structure necessary for those with mental illness to best lead independent and fulfilling lives. What’s more, they remove the burden of care from family members who have often spent years – decades even –futilely trying to help. It is frequently my recommendation that family members not serve as conservators. Third parties – professional, experienced and vetted conservators – offer the fresh, outside perspective often necessary to prompt positive change without the inherent family complexities. And they allow family dynamics to normalize – so Mom goes back to just being Mom, Dad goes back to being Dad, and so on.

Ms. Spears’ case is having a chilling effect on families who desperately need these conservatorships. It’s making family members fearful of becoming “those people” who risk ensnaring their loved ones in legal arrangements like Ms. Spears’, even though the risk is minimal, in my experience. What’s more, it’s making professional conservators – overwhelmingly caring, dedicated, trustworthy individuals – think twice about whether they want to remain in the field. It’s not surprising. The media has cast them as villains and their conservatees as victims. Why wouldn’t they explore other court appointments?

To curb this trend, it’s crucial that more media outlets seek to depict conservatorships in this more nuanced way. In addition, the media-consuming public should seek to remind itself that there is a vast gulf between a story told for the purposes of entertainment and actual reality.

Ms. Spears’ next court date is November 12th, at which time many expect the judge will grant her petition to end her conservatorship, potentially spurring the most significant media coverage surrounding her case to date. It is my sincere hope that outlets will include in such coverage the more typical side of the conservatorship story, one in which family members, attorneys, conservators are motivated by love and service, and effectively use conservatorships to help.

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