Have you been following the sad, strange saga of Amanda Bynes? No? Wait, do respectable, serious lawyers not read gossip websites? Well, I never claimed to be respectable. So I read them. Daily. As Melanie Griffith said in Working Girl, "You never know where the big ideas will come from." In this case, the story of Amanda Bynes has a little something to say about the criminal justice system.
First, do you all know who Amanda Bynes is? She had a couple of t.v. shows as a teen. She's been in a couple of teen movies, one starring Colin Firth, one taking my favorite Shakespearean comedy (Twelfth Night) into the wacky world of non-coed high school soccer. Her last credit was in 2010.
Over the last year or so, she's been making a lot of headlines. Allegedly throwing a bong out of a NYC apartment window as police were coming in. (I want to say the apartment was around the 20th floor, so if she did throw something out, it was a dangerous act, though apparently the thing landed safely on the roof of another building.) There's a pending DUI charge in LA. Aside from that, though, there have just been stories of odd behavior, twitter meltdowns and head-shavings and blue wigs and apartment evictions.
Throughout all of these reports we also have learned that her parents are frantic. They moved to California to try to keep a closer eye on her as her behavior deteriorated. (She responded by moving to NY.) They have contacted lawyers, perhaps even tried to use the media's coverage of her behavior to help them in their quest to get help for their daughter. We are also now learning that there have been signs of a pretty severe mental illness for a while, reports of her hearing voices and talking to the air.
But at this point, she is a grown adult so her parents can't force her to accept treatment for mental illness and the law requires an awful, awful lot before it will step in.
Finally, last night came the incident that might actually do the trick, though. Using gasoline and who knows what else, Amanda tried to start a fire on some random old lady's driveway. There are some reports that she was laying down, perhaps suggesting an attempt at self-immolation? I certainly hope not. Whatever she was thinking, the thing that seems to have saved the day is that she got gasoline on her dog. Distressed, she rushed the dog to the nearest place (a liquor store) and washed off the dog in the bathroom. (Clearly she wasn't thinking rationally if she was setting a fire with her dog there but didn't want her dog to get hurt.) The police caught up to her and took her in not on criminal charges but on an involuntary psych hold, called a 5150 in California law. (The dog is safe and sound with her parents.)
She will now be held by the state in a mental hospital while an evaluation is conducted. There's a good possibility now that her parents might be granted conservatorship over their daughter, which would allow them to commit her into treatment against her will. It's the same process that seemed to set Britney Spears on the path to recovery from her mental break.
Now the other important detail for my purposes is the responses on these gossip websites, all of which have comment forums. A lot of comments over the past months have expressed sympathy for what appears to be a pretty serious mental health breakdown. A lot of the comments, though, reject that, instead insisting that Amanda is just an asshole, a jerk, a selfish, spoiled brat. She needs to be arrested and put in jail before she hurts someone. There are also the "mental illness is no excuse" comments. Shoot, I've even seen people suggesting she's just copy-catting Britney's antics to garner sympathy or some such nonsense.
All I have been thinking while following this saga is how like some of my clients she is, in terms of behavior, anyway. Behavior spiraling out of control, eventually becoming dangerous and/or illegal. Then there's the similar frustration of not knowing what to do for a person who is acting out in the throes of mental illness but won't voluntarily seek help (the actual Catch-22 that if you're crazy, you don't know you're crazy).
But Amanda has some things going for her that my clients usually don't. First, she's got very dedicated parents who have been desperately trying to get her help and seem committed to continuing. Second, she does have financial resources. It seems these good parents took care to put much of her childhood earnings into trusts, so while she doesn't have ready access to burn through all of her assets, she does have assets that could presumably be used to pay for mental health services. Third, she got lucky with the arresting officers in the driveway fire incident as they saw the incident as a mental health issue. How the initial responding officers react has a lot to say about the initial treatment of the person. Does that person spend the night in jail before an attorney can get the case to a judge and a DA who might (but might not) see the mental health needs? Or does that person go straight to a psych ward for an evaluation? It's really rather amazing how much the police can dictate the path a case will travel. Imagine if the 911 call about Amanda's driveway antics had been answered by a police officer who subscribed to the "mental illness is no excuse" camp.
The sad truth is that for people like Amanda Bynes or so many of my clients, there aren't many great options. Even a young woman with supportive, involved parents and the financial resources to pay for treatment can't be made to get treatment until she gets a court's attention for breaking a few laws. It can't help that we have such a wide-spread cultural resistance to the very idea of mental illness. She's frankly a little lucky if courts and police being presented with her actions are all recognizing it as a mental health situation and not a criminal case. We massively underfund mental health services. Instead, we wait for people suffering from mental illness to commit crimes. And then we warehouse them in prisons and jails because we don't have anywhere else to put them. We have a mental health crisis in this country. We really, really need to do something about that.
I hope Amanda Bynes is able to find treatment that will help her. I hope that she isn't thoughtlessly labeled a "criminal" and I hope she isn't stigmatized as being defective or unfixable or worthless. I also sincerely hope that more people suffering from mental illness are also able to receive successful treatment and support long before they have to become my clients. I am not equipped to help them.