For people with mental health conditions and other disabilities, the restrictions Britney Spears faces aren’t news.
If you’ve noticed #FreeBritney hashtags on social media in recent weeks, you may have skimmed an article or two, wondering what she’s doing these days and what, exactly, she wants freedom from.
The detailed explanation of the issues she’s faced for more than a decade of conservatorship may have surprised you.
After several widely publicized experiences where she seemed to fight significant emotional distress, Britney Spears was put on a psychiatric hold on more than one occasion.
Citing this as proof that she couldn’t care for herself, her children, or manage her finances, her father, Jamie Spears, petitioned judges to grant him a conservatorship.
The courts granted his petition, giving her father nearly complete authority to make legal, financial, medical, and career decisions for Spears. Thirteen years later, he remains a conservator and controls most aspects of her professional and personal life.
Plenty of Spears’ fans have spoken out against what they consider an abusive and unnecessary conservatorship.
But this issue goes deeper than the injustice done to a pop star. It sets an alarming precedent for other people, particularly women, who live with mental health conditions and other disabilities.
The exact responsibilities and limits of conservatorships can vary by state. Still, their basic purpose remains the same: They help protect vulnerable adults who can’t manage their own finances or personal affairs, as determined by a court of law.
A judge might appoint a conservator for someone who:
- develops dementia
- has a developmental disability
- sustains brain damage in an accident
- has a serious mental health condition that requires long-term inpatient care
Courts most often establish conservatorships when someone can’t provide basic needs like food, clothing, or shelter for themselves or their children.
The Handbook for Conservators notes several limits to this role, explaining that conservatees — or people under conservatorships — still have rights. These rights include:
- making medical decisions
- controlling their salary
In theory, a conservatorship offers limited support for only the tasks someone can’t handle themselves. In practice, they often restrict much more, especially for those who don’t truly need them.
Even temporary conservatorships, like Spears’, don’t automatically expire. Once established, they remain in place until ended by a judge. This fact creates enormous potential for abuse, largely because it requires the conservatee to go above and beyond to show they can manage their affairs.
By its very nature, a conservatorship suggests someone lacks the ability to care for themselves, often because they can’t work or manage basic needs and personal safety.
Spears has continued to work throughout the conservatorship. She even stated in court that she’s performed while ill against her will.
In one breath, she hears she’s incapable of caring for herself and her finances. In another, she’s told she must perform or face legal consequences. Yet since she can’t handle her own money, those performances, arguably, don’t benefit her.
Spears’ mental health diagnosis isn’t public record. She’s shared her experiences of anxiety but hasn’t said she has bipolar disorder — only that she was prescribed lithium, a medication used to treat the condition, against her will.
Still, her existing mental health conditions are beside the point.
What really matters is this: She’s asked courts to remove her father from his role as conservator, citing multiple instances of abuse.
Denying this request, even though the conservatorship poses a threat to her well-being, sends the message that her wishes and well-being don’t really matter.
The burden of proof
As many people living with mental health conditions already know, it’s not enough to show you can:
- work and participate in society
- handle personal hygiene and other basic needs
- manage money
- maintain healthy relationships
Someone who wants to control you can point to almost any behavior to question your capabilities:
- expressing anger
- showing “excessive” excitement over good news
- sleeping late
- getting tearful during an emotional moment
- seeming a little distracted
- having a glass of wine
- making an impulsive purchase
Not only do you have to prove your own wellness again and again, the slightest hint of emotional distress often serves to “confirm” you pose a threat to yourself or others.
Understandably, many people with mental health conditions find conservatorships and similar arrangements demeaning and frustrating.
The constant strain of avoiding excess emotion, or any actions the people managing your affairs might consider “questionable,” takes a heavy toll. So can the knowledge you lack autonomy over not only your finances but your very person.
Spears’ conservatorship doesn’t just do her an injustice. It parallels the experiences of women — across the country and around the world — living in abusive situations at the whims of fathers, partners, and other male guardians.
Maybe your partner insists you work. But even though you earn the household income, they take your wages (yes, this is a form of abuse), saying they don’t trust you to spend it wisely.
What if they go beyond claiming to want to protect you? They also control your actions with physical violence, threats, or both. You’re afraid to tell anyone because you don’t want them to hurt you or your children.
There’s another catch, too: You have a diagnosed mental health condition. This means, they promise, no one will believe you.
Eventually, you might even begin to doubt whether you really can take care of yourself.
Historically, men have used mental health conditions, real or otherwise, to control women.
In the early 1900s, men could send their wives and daughters to an asylum, indefinitely, for that all-encompassing diagnosis of hysteria, or simple “unwomanly” behavior:
- expressing an opinion
- reading “unsuitable” books
- experiencing postpartum depression
- having irregular periods
These male guardians could have women sterilized, genitally mutilated, or subjected to any number of other harsh and absolutely unjustified treatments, simply for experiencing emotional distress or failing to conform to societal expectations of femininity.
“Hysteria” may no longer be a mental health diagnosis. Regardless, conservatorships of adult women with mental health concerns represent a backward slide into the past.
Spears made a statement explaining the conservatorship prevents her from:
- visiting friends or going on dates with her boyfriend without permission
- seeing her therapist in her own home
- choosing her own therapist and treatment program
- decorating her home
- visiting beauty salons
Spears doesn’t just lack control over her personal life.
The conservatorship also prevents her from making her own medical decisions and exercising her reproductive freedom. She’s said she wants to marry and have another child, but her conservators have prevented her from getting her IUD removed.
Denying someone reproductive freedom echoes the beliefs of eugenicists, who considered people with disabilities “unfit” to have children. They sterilized many, well into the 1900s, along with Black and Indigenous women and others considered “inferior.”
How long until enforced birth control becomes a standard for women with chronic health and mental health conditions? Until their nearest male relatives can force them to take birth control or get an abortion if they become pregnant?
Many people with disabilities already live in abusive and confining situations. But if Spears’ conservatorship continues against her will, despite widespread awareness of the rights she’s been stripped of, it could restart a disturbing pattern of sanctioned oppression and misogynistic abuse.
Spears is far from the only person facing the confines of conservatorships and restrictive legal orders. All the same, her very public statement may draw awareness to the cruel and unnecessary restrictions imposed on people living with mental health conditions.
The notion that psychiatric conditions equal incapacity denies people with disabilities basic human rights. No matter what symptoms you experience, you have the right to:
- earn and spend your own money
- choose your treatment plan
- see a doctor or therapist of your choice
- make choices about your body
- seek health support or financial guidance from someone you trust
- receive respectful and compassionate care
You deserve to live life as you see fit — not as dictated by your partner, father, or other male guardians.