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Ryan Johnson, Published August 01 2013

Johnson: Amanda Bynes’ mental illness in the spotlight

If actress Amanda Bynes were just an average 27-year-old, she might find some sympathy for her obvious personal issues and possible mental illness.

But because Bynes, who was admitted last week to a psychiatric facility, is an actress and former child star, there’s little compassion from a nation obsessed with delighting in a famous person’s fall from grace.

Consider what’s going on with Bynes, who started acting professionally at the age of 7 and had her own variety show on Nickelodeon when she was 13.

There’s no denying she’s falling apart, whether it’s her increasingly frequent run-ins with police, a dangerous obsession with plastic surgery or becoming so paranoid that cameras are watching her every move that she now covers smoke alarms.

But if struggling with mental illness is enough to become a national joke, my freshman dorm room should have been a sitcom.

During that year, the depression I had battled for years brought me to my lowest point and made it almost impossible for me to get out of bed each day.

One roommate had to drop out just a few weeks into school because he preferred drinking to school; the other had several alcohol-fueled nights end in broken glass and suicidal threats that I later realized were caused by his untreated bipolar disorder.

The difference is that we weren’t celebrities, so we were allowed to face our demons without the constant judgment of strangers.

When I slipped up as I tried to get help, I didn’t worry that my one bad night would be discussed for weeks on national news and splashed on the cover of every magazine in the country.

When I posted a dumb picture online, it wasn’t the top story of thousands of blogs and websites.

It’s easy to assume that celebrities are somehow so different from us regular folks that they can’t be hurt from this cruel coverage.

But let’s consider for one second that she’s just a 27-year-old woman who, while wealthy and famous from her childhood, is now struggling to become an adult. Is this really that uncommon?

Bynes is now being compared to Britney Spears, who went through a similar public meltdown and became a joke after she walked into a beauty salon and shaved her own head.

But let’s not just compare these two at their lowest points – look to Spears as an example of what Bynes can be once again.

A judge put Spears’ parents in charge of her life in early 2008, giving her strict rules to get back on track. It wasn’t easy, but with a lot of help, time out of the spotlight and personal effort, Spears has made an unlikely comeback.

Now, Bynes’ parents have petitioned for the same supervision rights because she has become incapable of taking care of herself. With some outside help, I really believe Bynes can come back from the brink of self-destruction.

Until that happens, we all just need to consider what we’re really saying when we laugh at her paranoia and substance abuse.

When we joke about her suffering, we’re saying she is no longer worthy of any sympathy.

That won’t help Bynes, and it sends a terrible message to the rest of us who aren’t former child stars but might have our own emotional baggage to sort out.

If it was your relative, or friend, or co-worker, or spouse, would you revel in their misery?

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587