Why Speculating About Roxanne Pallett's Mental Health After 'Celebrity Big Brother' Is Damaging & Unhelpful
The Roxanne Pallett/Ryan Thomas situation has been characterised by confusion and uncertainty, but one thing is clear — there were no winners. After leaving the Celebrity Big Brother house on Saturday, Pallett has clearly had some time to think and crucially to rewatch the footage of the incident that caused her to accuse Thomas of deliberately assaulting her. In an interview on Jeremy Vine, Pallett said that she had "got it wrong", and apologised to the former Coronation Street actor and his family. But what also happened in the interview was continued speculation about the state of Roxanne Pallett's mental health. It came when singer and domestic abuse survivor, Jamelia questioned Pallett about whether she intended to seek professional help after the fallout.
The impulse is understandable, much of the debate around Pallett's accusation has focused on the state of her mental health, whether it was suggestions that depression or anxiety might have motivated her behaviour in the house, or denials by her Emmerdale co-stars that she had ever had any mental health issues. But while it might be attractive to reach for an easy solution to a confusing situation, the implication that Pallett could only either be a liar or mentally unstable is deeply unhelpful and only heightens the stigma around mental illness.
As psychologist Honey Lancaster-James told me: "Although it can be tempting to engage in armchair psychology and speculate about the reasons and causes behind a person’s behaviour on television, it is only ever that, speculation. It’s not helpful to try to diagnose someone’s state of mental health purely on their observable behaviours, whether they are on or off screen. Only qualified clinicians can and should be diagnosing mental health conditions, and only then in careful consultation with the individual concerned.
"We must also be very careful not to witness someone’s seemingly unpleasant behaviour and immediately start suggesting it’s because of someone’s mental health," Langcaster James adds. "There is a great deal of stigma around mental health unfortunately, and this kind of narrative suggests that mental illness is somewhat synonymous with anti-social behaviour. People do sometimes tell lies or make false accusations, sadly, and there are a variety of reasons why they might do so. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are mentally ill. It can fuel the stigma associated with mental illness to suggest that this is the reason someone might be lying or making false accusations."
Notably, Pallett seemed reluctant to confirm or deny her intention to get counselling. But instead told Jamelia that she was committed to "working on" the character traits that might have led to the situation, and becoming a "better person" to stop anything like from happening again.
The problem with situations like the one that occurred between Thomas and Pallett in the age of social media is that due to the divisive nature of debate on sites like Twitter, someone has to be totally good and someone has to be totally bad. In this situation, given that viewers watching at home were able to see quite clearly that what Pallett thought had happened, hadn't happened, the "good guy", the "wronged party" in the situation was obviously Thomas, which made Pallett the "bad guy," setting her up for a torrent of abuse. But while plenty of the commentary on social media contained speculation about her mental health, very little of it was addressed with actual consideration of it.
In looking back over the footage, Pallett's distress at what happened didn't, to me, appear disingenuous. Charity Women's Aid were one of the few voices that did present an alternative perspective. Pallett also revealed on Jeremy Vine that she's a survivor of domestic abuse by a former partner. In their statement, the charity elaborated on how play fights such as the one Thomas started can trigger memories of the abuse and lead to a misunderstanding of the potential for harm in the situation.
A statement read: “Play fighting may not seem serious but if you have been in an abusive relationship it can seem frightening and even trigger memories of the abuse. Domestic abuse means you don’t feel safe in your home environment, and as a woman who has previously spoken about being in a violent and abusive relationship, Roxanne clearly did not feel comfortable going to sleep in the same room as someone who had physically hurt her, even if that was not his intention."
The charity continued: “An estimated 1.2 million women experienced domestic abuse last year alone; while you might not think you know someone who has experienced domestic abuse, it is highly likely that you do. That’s why it is so important for us to show understanding and empathy for someone who is clearly upset by certain behaviours rather than blaming them for overreacting. For any survivors out there, you are not alone. Women’s Aid is always here to listen to you, believe you and support you.”
Their sentiment is something Lancaster-James echoes: "Sometimes people can become genuinely convinced of things, things that to many others may seem entirely false, so sometimes someone appears to be lying when in fact, they actually believe what they are saying. We should always be careful not to judge others purely on the behaviour we witness on television as there can be so many factors at play.”
It's understandable that Thomas's fans and family members would want to stand up for him and support him, there's no reason why they shouldn't. But so many of the comments I saw on social media, though made in an attempt to defend Thomas's humanity, attacked Pallett's. Other people's mental health is none of our business in the first instance. But even if it was, and Pallett had been suffering from depression, anxiety or any other condition, how would the social media storm have impacted that?
It's important in debates like this to realise that both things can be possible. You can believe Thomas and also have empathy for Pallett. You can hope that Pallett apologises while still understanding the history that might have led her to misunderstand the situation. And crucially this should all be achievable without the need to stigmatise mental health issues by associating them distrustfulness, lies, or false accusations. Women's mental health has been used as a tool of oppression for centuries and people should know better than to fall into the same trap in 2018.
Even more disturbing were suggestions that Pallett somehow harmed the #MeToo movement with her actions in the Celebrity Big Brother house. One of the most disappointing aspects of the fallout from the Weinstein scandal and similar allegations of harassment in other industries has been the hysteria around the ruining of men's lives, and it's inherent lack of consideration for the impact the alleged perpetrators may have had on the lives of their alleged victims. Why is it that we care more about a man's reputation than a woman's safety? Why was Thomas's emotion taken at face value, while Pallett's was dismissed as acting?
None of which is to say that Pallett's accusations and the risk they posed to Thomas's reputation should be excused, but it begs the question if he didn't deserve to have his life and career ruined, does she? Perhaps it might be wise to stop trying to apply reductive black and white thinking to complex situations. As this case proves — when empathy and nuance are forgotten, everybody loses.