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Her Prerogative? A Unique View On The #FreeBritney Movement

A California law professor with an expertise in mental health and ethics, and who suffers from chronic schizophrenia, takes a look beyond the headlines at the case of Britney Spears, who has been fighting to free herself from the conservatorship of her father.

Her Prerogative? A Unique View On The #FreeBritney Movement
Britney Spears supporters in Los Angeles on July 14
Ringo Chiu/ZUMA Wire
Elyn Saks*

Britney Spears' impassioned remarks in court have raised many questions about conservatorships, including when they're necessary and whether they effectively protect someone's best interests.

When one loses the capacity to make decisions for oneself the court appoints a guardian, or conservator, to make those decisions. Appointing someone to make decisions about personal and financial matters on another's behalf has been part of civil society since the ancient Greeks. Today, all jurisdictions in the U.S. have conservatorship laws to protect people who lack the ability to make their own decisions.

As a distinguished professor of law at the University of Southern California, and as a person who was diagnosed over four decades ago with chronic schizophrenia, I have a personal and professional interest in issues at the intersection of law, mental health and ethics. I believe that conservatorships are warranted in certain rare cases, such as someone experiencing severe delusions that put them at financial and bodily risk. But because conservatorships are a serious intrusion into a person's sense of self, they might not always be the best option.

Here are four myths about decision-making capacity, and ways to address them:

Myth 1: The inability to make one kind of decision means an inability to make any kind of decision

Historically, lack of decision-making capacity was thought of in a global way. That is, the inability to make a single significant decision meant that a person lacked capacity to make all significant decisions.

Making "bad" decisions, or decisions others do not agree with, is not the same as making incompetent decisions.

Today, U.S. law tends to view decision-making capacity more granularly. Different kinds of decisions require distinct capacities. For example, whether people are capable of making decisions about their finances is seen as legally separate and distinct from whether they're capable of making a decision to marry or refuse medical treatment. Not being able to make one kind of decision may reveal little about whether someone lacks the capacity to make other important decisions.

Making "bad" decisions, or decisions others do not agree with, is not the same as making incompetent decisions. People, especially those with considerable resources, often have family members and associates who are eager to provide a court with examples of an individual's poor decision-making that may be irrelevant to determining competence.

People sometimes make decisions that others strongly disagree with. That is their prerogative.

Myth 2: Once someone loses decision-making capacity, it never returns

As someone who lives with schizophrenia, I can say from personal experience that decision-making capacity waxes and wanes. At times, I unquestionably lack the capacity to make certain decisions because I have false beliefs, or delusions, about the world and how it works. Thankfully, those psychotic states are not permanent. With proper treatment, they pass and I soon return to my usual self.

Although certain conditions, like severe dementia, can permanently render an individual incapable of making decisions, many conditions do not. Research is increasingly demonstrating that there are ways to help people regain their decision-making capacity sooner, including psychotherapy and medication.

Myth 3: People who are declared incompetent are indifferent to having their decision-making abilities taken away

As Spears made powerfully clear in court, being deprived of the ability to make important decisions about one's own life can be one of the most deeply distressing circumstances a person can endure. It leaves one feeling helpless and unheard, and can reinforce and prolong mental illness.

Consider what it might feel like to not be able to write a check or use your credit card without asking for permission. Or consider how a parent reacts when an adult child takes away the car keys. In law school I wrote a paper on the use of mechanical restraints in psychiatric hospitals based on my own excruciating experiences as a patient. On reading my paper, a well-known professor in psychiatry unwittingly remarked that "those people" would not experience restraints as he and I would. I've always regretted not telling him in that moment that my article was about myself.

Britney Spears supporters in Los Angeles on July 14 — Photo: Ringo Chiu/ZUMA

For most people of childbearing potential, the ability to make decisions about reproduction is often an important part of their identity. A state action depriving someone of the ability to reproduce is incredibly intrusive, and the stress this causes may itself exacerbate the conditions that interfere with decision-making capacity.

There are other options that ensure a child's needs are met while respecting the parent's autonomy. One possibility includes having the parent identify individuals who can care for the child until decision-making capacity returns.

Myth 4: Mental illness or involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital indicates lack of decision-making capacity

Under the law, neither a mental illness nor involuntary psychiatric commitment renders a person incapable of making decisions. People who suffer from major psychiatric disorders may be perfectly capable of handling their personal and financial matters and would justifiably be outraged if they were declared unable to do so.

There are cases when someone's ability to make decisions is so compromised that others need to step in.

Those whose ability to make decisions appears to be deteriorating can designate a trusted person to make decisions on their behalf. Supported decision-making allows individuals to choose who they want to help them in decision-making while they retain the final say. Similarly, a pychiatric advance directive documents an individual's mental health treatment preferences and enlists a proxy decision-maker should decision-making capacity be lost in the future.

Respecting autonomy

U.S. law honors individual autonomy by presuming that everyone has decision-making competence unless proved otherwise. There are certainly cases when someone's ability to make decisions is so compromised that others need to step in. Conservatorships are one way to do this. But there are also less restrictive alternatives that take into account the fact that decision-making capacity waxes and wanes. Keeping Britney and others safe does not mean that they cannot be free to make decisions about their own lives.The Conversation



*Elyn Saks, Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences, University of Southern California

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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