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Lay Off, Press: Mischa Barton’s Illness Is No Joke

Please, please leave Mischa Barton alone.

News sources are reporting that Mischa Barton (Sixth Sense, The OC) was taken voluntarily to a local hospital for a mental health evaluation after an incident at her home on Thursday morning.

Barton’s West Hollywood neighbors spotted her on top of her backyard fence, agitated and screaming about her mother, her dog and the end of the world (she’s not off base, on that one, OK? I’ve been screaming about that too). The neighbors contacted police and firefighters. Unfortunately, in West Hollywood, police and firefighters are often beaten to the scene by paparazzi. And that’s just what happened in Barton’s case.

I wish to God this hadn’t hit the news at all. But numerous celebrity news outlets are thrilled to dish on all of the sad details — including the paparazzi’s raw, disturbing photographs of Barton mid-crisis. The media was also quick to point out, salaciously, that Barton was only wearing “a dress shirt and a tie.” Great. Let’s sex up her pain while we’re at it.

More: You owe it to your kids to have this mental illness conversation

I’ve written about my own painful struggles with mental illness because I think the stigma is harmful, and silence keeps those who most need help from seeking it. And… I speak about it because it’s my story to tell. Many of my colleagues and friends suffer from wounds you can’t immediately see — everything from bipolar to depression to anxiety to PTSD to borderline personality disorder. So this particular topic cuts to the quick. I shudder to think of any photos leaking — especially if I had been unaware they were being taken — of me at my very lowest and most vulnerable. My heart aches for Barton, who is ultimately just a woman in need of help and compassion and not another smug smear campaign.

There’s zero excuse for releasing devastating photos like these. It’s one thing to report on a celebrity’s hospitalization, but there’s no entertainment or escapism to be found in photos of someone suffering in a full-blown mental health crisis. It’s utterly disgusting and utterly without empathy or humanity.

Is Barton in the public eye? Yes — but a crisis in her backyard is private and should be off-limits to the press. By all accounts, she’s suffered with mental illness for some time. After seeking medical attention for a tooth infection in 2009, the actress was kept in a psychiatric facility for two weeks under a “5150,” the California law that allows a psychiatrist to involuntarily confine a person deemed to have a mental disorder that makes them a danger to themselves and/or others.

Barton said then on the record: “If they feel you are depressed or a danger to yourself they can hold you on a 5150. I am terrified of needles and they wanted to pump me full of drugs and I said, ‘No, absolutely not. I don’t want to be here,’ and got into a fight with the nurses, and that led to my 5150.”

That info was offered up by Barton, and it’s a window into her ongoing struggles. Do we have a right to more info? Nope. Did she deserve to have Thursday’s breakdown greedily documented and served up for all to see? No way. I refuse to grant a free pass to the paparazzi. A mental breakdown is no red carpet scene and will never be. All publicity is not good publicity. Just ask the celebrities who have struggled with mental illness and been stigmatized and blacklisted and laughed at for it on late-night TV.

More: Thank you, Kristen Bell, for flipping the script on mental illness

I don’t even think you need to struggle with mental illness to understand how damning and devastating these photos are. Just think of your own personal lousiest, darkest, lowest moment, and then imagine (imagine!) what a photographer might have captured. Would TMZ have loved it? You can bet on it. Feel good about the thought of that moment splashed on the internet for strangers to see? Yeah. Me neither.

Paparazzi: Lay off those who are ill — physically or mentally. It’s one thing to capture an Oscar ensemble; it’s quite another to keep perpetuating a culture in which mental illness is still a blast to laugh at. “Oh my God, did you hear?”

Next time, I’d like to say, “No, I didn’t hear a thing.”

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