MHW: Advocates Find Success in Overturning 3 Discriminatory Depictions of People w MH Conditions

NYAPRS Note: Here’s a wonderful piece about the recent success that mental health advocates for dignity and against discriminatory depictions have had. Note: I should have clarified that the 120 emails from our overnight campaign came within the first two hours of internet discussion…just incredible!). Also, see below for why SAMHSA is using the term discrimination over stigma.

Mental Health Advocates Force Closure Of Halloween Exhibits, Citing Discrimination
Mental Health Weekly October 10, 2016

Following a weeklong campaign of emails, phone calls, tweets and Facebook posts, an unofficial coalition of mental health advocates, consumers with lived experiences of recovery, family members and other community stakeholders are basking in successful efforts to force the closure of two Halloween-themed attractions that they say incite discrimination and stigma against individuals with mental illness.

The recent advocacy efforts represent the second time in less than a year that protests from advocates prompted removal of an offensive display that discriminated and perpetuated stereotypes against people with mental illness.

Last year, a billboard by designer Kenneth Cole linking mental illness to violence was taken down following advocacy outcry. One of the concerning attractions, the PSYCHO-PATH Haunted Asylum and Dark Oaks Asylum, was featured at Six Flags theme parks.

The attraction was described on the Six Flags website as “A new cursed haunted asylum: Dark Oaks Asylum: Our new haunted house brings you face-to-face with the world’s worst psychiatric patients. Traverse the haunted hallways of Dark Oaks Asylum and try not to bump into any of the grunting inmates around every turn. Maniacal inmates yell out from their bloodstained rooms and deranged guards wander the corridors in search of those who have escaped.”

News about other offending exhibits came to the attention of advocates via a Sept. 6 article in the Los Angeles Times. According to the article, the virtual reality haunted attraction was featured at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California; California’s Great America in Santa Clara; and Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto.

At the L.A. attraction “visitors” are admitted to a mental health hospital where a psychiatric patient with demonic powers is on the loose. The attraction was called Fear VR: 5150 — taking its name from the California police code for persons with mental illness considered a danger to themselves or others, the Times reported.

Doris Schwartz, chief operating officer of the Mental Health Association (MHA) of Westchester, told MHW that she and Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS), were alerted a few weeks ago by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Orange County about the Times review “of a demeaning, dehumanizing Halloween attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm, and once again our grassroots coalition swung into action.”

Schwartz added, “We joined with West Coast NAMIs and MHAs, [the national] Mental Health America and the hundreds of others who care deeply about the rights of those of us living with mental health conditions. We are committed to bringing attention to and stopping discrimination in whatever form it presents itself.”

Schwartz said she doesn’t want to see children and teens fear people with mental health conditions because of their exposure to these kinds of Halloween-themed attractions. “These exhibits are not just hurtful to people; it’s broader than that,” she said.

Prejudice against people with mental health conditions has deep and old roots, and we do not want to introduce and perpetuate myths to a whole new generation — which is what likely would occur at a family-friendly amusement park.”

“Often these types of events are not intended to be harmful — our focus is to educate people and let them know that what they’re doing is demoralizing, stigmatizing and flat out discrimination,” said Schwartz.

The exhibits at Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags were taken down within a week following concerns raised by the advocacy coalition, said Schwartz. “We truly appreciate being heard,” she said.

Feedback Received
Susan Rogers, director of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse, received an email from the communications manager of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom saying that changes would be made immediately to the attraction, including converting the theme and changing out the references in advertising and social media.

The maze will now feature zombies, said Nancy Chan. “There was never an intention to upset the mental health community in any way,” she wrote. “This is a good lesson for us all about perpetuating stereotypes, and we apologize to anyone that we may have offended.”

“Six Flags took immediate responsibility and apologized,” Rogers, also director of special projects for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, told MHW. “It’s just outrageous that this is still going on in 2016. This has gotten national. Maybe no other Halloween exhibit of this sort will ever be built.”

Knott’s Berry Farm officials also noted that it has taken down its Fear VR: 5150 exhibit, according to a notice on the NYAPRS website. Public relations from Knott’s Berry Farm responded in part, “Over the past week we have heard from a number of people expressing their concern that one of our temporary, Halloween attractions — Fear VR — is hurtful to those who suffer from mental illnesses. Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness. As it is impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween timeframe, at this time we have decided to close the attraction.”

Billboard Response
Schwartz spoke about an incident last September involving a billboard positioned above the Henry Hudson Parkway at the gateway to New York City posted by fashion designer Kenneth Cole. The billboard read: “Over 40m Americans suffer from mental illness. Some can access care … All can access guns.”

Schwartz said she was shocked to see such an inflammatory message, given that Cole’s marketing campaigns are known for progressive messages. “However, the billboard creating a direct link between mental illness and gun violence was outrageous,” she said.

As a member of the NYAPRS board of directors, Schwartz said she immediately sent an email to the entire board with a photo of the billboard.

“The NYAPRS board, led by Harvey Rosenthal, is a passionate and powerful group of advocates and activists — and they immediately turned to social media, emails and phone calls to voice their indignation,” Schwartz said. “The power of passion is enormous, and the initiative went viral, from New York to California, with organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association making their dissent known as well.”

Schwartz added, “It was gratifying to see Cole’s removal of the billboard two weeks later. One email is all it takes to get a movement going.”

The removal of stigmatizing messages from the Kenneth Cole billboard and the removal of the Halloween attractions represent three important victories in the media and entertainment field following deletion of the stigmatizing references to mental illness, said Rosenthal.

“It’s really extraordinary,” Rosenthal told MHW. “In two years we’re making advances [addressing] stigma and discrimination,” he said. “These are big events.”

The exhibits, noted Rosenthal, represented “a destructive influence to our community.” In the week of protests from stakeholders, nearly 120 emails had been exchanged, he said. “People just got right into action,” he said.

Added Rosenthal, “There’s lots of hope in our community to be effective in taking down these kinds of offensive exhibits. These things happen one conversation at a time —whether it’s a new law or an event like this, it’s a pathway to dignity.” •

Moving From Calling It ‘Stigma’ To ‘Discrimination’
The main emphasis to executives of the Halloween attractions was that they exacerbated discrimination and prejudice associated with mental health conditions, said Susan Rogers, director of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse. “We don’t like the word ‘stigma’ anymore,” Rogers told MHW. Even the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has eliminated the use of the word “stigma,” preferring “discrimination” instead, said Rogers.

Kana Enomoto, principal deputy administrator of SAMHSA, was quoted in a Sept. 27 Huffington Post article, “Let’s Call Mental Health Stigma What It Really Is: Discrimination.” “The societal outlook on mental illness doesn’t just result in negative stereotyping, as the term ‘stigma’ implies,” Enomoto said during an interview at a National Press Foundation gathering of mental health–focused journalists, the Huffington Post reported. “It results in behavior and policy that actually make life more difficult for those with mental health challenges.”

Enomoto added, “We [at SAMHSA] don’t use the word stigma. You look the word up in the dictionary and it refers to a mark of shame.”