Britney Spears’ recent court testimony might have put her previous mental health evaluations under a cloud of mistrust, but her allegations of abuse are unlikely to help her gain independence without further psychological scrutiny.
Despite concerns raised about her previous evaluations, it’s unlikely that the court will throw away her doctor’s filings and release her from the conservatorship, said Scott Rahn, a California-based trust lawyer who handles estates and conservatorships. The court balances a number of factors when it decides whether to place someone under a conservatorship, which makes it hard to create an objective standard that can be undone.
Spears will probably have to submit to a new psychological assessment, which she told the court she doesn’t want, Rahn said.
“If somebody has raised concerns about the validity of an evaluation if that evaluation was, you know, four years ago or two years ago, the person is still conserved, and the question of whether the person should be conserved today is not necessarily going to be best answered by going and looking at an evaluation from two years ago,” Rahn said. “I think the better question is whether the current status necessitates a conservatorship.”
Spears asked a judge last month to end the conservatorship she has been under for 13 years. Since then, several people, including her court-appointed attorney and her manager, have resigned, along with a professional financial institution. The court rejected Spears’ petition to remove her father, Jamie Spears, from his role in his daughter’s estate. A court hearing is set for Wednesday.
Medical records filed as part of Spears’ case are sealed for privacy. Spears, 39, told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny in her testimony that she felt her previous psychiatrist was abusive in his treatment of her.
“To be totally honest with you, when [the doctor] passed away, I got on my knees and thanked God,” she said.
She alleged that she was subjected to lengthy psychological evaluations, forced into a $60,000-a-month inpatient facility and told that she wouldn’t be able to see her children if she failed to comply.
Spears alleged that the psychiatrist, who died in 2019, put her on lithium a few days after she refused to do a new show in Las Vegas and that her management told the doctor that she wasn’t taking her medication. The drug, which Spears said was “completely different” from her medication, is a mood stabilizer most commonly used to treat manic depression associated with bipolar disorder.
She said a doctor required her to have six nurses in her home, who watched her dress and wouldn’t let her leave. She said the lithium made her feel “drunk” and scared.
Spears said that after the psychiatrist’s death, she was forced to see a therapist three days a week and that paparazzi humiliated her by taking photos of her crying after the emotional sessions. She asked the judge last month to be allowed to be part of her own care plan, including in-home therapy sessions.
Allegations of abuse aren’t uncommon in conservatorships, said Tamar Arminak, a conservatorship lawyer who worked with Amanda Bynes’ parents. Doctors are asked to file capacity declarations to the court, which detail whether conservatees are able to make decisions for themselves; they form about 75 percent of how judges base their decisions to keep someone under court-ordered guardianship, she said.
“It is the psychiatrist that holds, sort of, dangling the carrot: ‘Everybody around you is telling me you’re not complying,’ ‘You’re not doing well,'” Arminak said. “‘Therefore, I’m going to put you in inpatient treatment.’ ‘Therefore you are going to be institutionalized.’ ‘Therefore, things are going to change for you.’ And as we know from Britney’s testimony, that’s exactly what happened to her.”
There should be a high standard to force Spears into a conservatorship, Arminak said; otherwise, anyone with a mental illness who has assets or “can make money can be used like Britney” and should be concerned.
“There is no reason why her own attorney cannot seek out alternative expert opinion, come in to court with an alternative report from a new psychiatrist saying, truthfully, that perhaps she does suffer from long-term mental illness, but that mental illness is under control,” Arminak said. “It is not causing her to be a danger to herself and others, she’s able to make her most basic decisions in life, and she should not be under this conservatorship.”
Other celebrities who have been open about their mental health struggles, such as Kanye West and his bipolar diagnosis, haven’t been subjected to such restrictive legal guardianships, Arminak said. It’s almost as if Spears has been diagnosed with “hysterics” and is being routinely ignored, Arminak said.
“What a lot of people are not saying but they must be feeling is there has to be a component to her being a woman that this thing has lasted so long and that she and her opinion have been discarded for so long and that she’s been muzzled for so long,” Arminak said. “I believe that that is a factor here.”
Ira Burnim, legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said California law says conservatorships are meant to help people incapable of meeting their basic needs while allowing them to remain as independent as possible.
Spears could argue that she should be released from the conservatorship because she is better now than she was 13 years ago, but an argument could be made that she has improved only because of forced treatment, Burnim said.
There’s not much data about conservatorships, but comparisons can be made to forced or involuntary commitments of people in other civil proceedings, in which often those put into care against their will are unlikely to voluntarily seek care later. Often, it’s because they don’t feel heard or in control of their care, he said.
“It’s probably the No. 1 complaint of people who rely on the public mental health system for their care, which is they’re not heard and their preferences aren’t respected,” Burnim said. “And there’s too much reliance on medication, and particularly large doses of medication, and too little reliance or even belief in supporting people through not just therapy but providing other, more concrete forms of help to live independently.”
Spears’ situation has highlighted a larger debate around mental health and disability rights when it comes to forced treatment and guardianships, Burnim said. The guardianship system is unlikely to reform or change, as “legal processes for people who are devalued tend not to work all that well.”
“I think, you know, there are a lot of people who may have sympathy for Britney Spears who may not have much sympathy for other people who are mentally ill and their right to make choices and to live in the way that they see fit as long as they’re not dangerous to themselves or others,” he said.