WP, NYT Cite National Efforts to Fight Discrimination & Stigma

NYAPRS Note: Two of the most prominent, widely read publications in the nation give front and center coverage to our community's recent successful efforts to get companies to stand down and either stop displaying attractions or making products that stigmatize us, a tribute to the extraordinary progress we are making. Like so many racial, religious and sexual identify related groups, we are starting to take our power and enter into the nation's consciousness that prejudice and discrimination of this kind will not be tolerated.
Thanks again to the wide diversity of advocacy groups, from consumer/survivor groups to families to provider associations, who are making this possible!

Halloween Attractions Use Mental Illness To Scare Us. Here’s Why Advocates Say It Must Stop.

By Colby Itkowitz Washington Post October 26, 2016

When Amelia Joubert visited the local haunted Halloween attraction in previous years, she always avoided the “7th Ward Asylum.” But last year, she decided to go in.

The attraction at Carowinds, an amusement park run by Cedar Fair Entertainment on the border of North and South Carolina, was described this way: “You would be crazy to tour this twisted asylum. Lost and tortured souls are all that remain, but you’ll see plenty that will make you question your sanity. … The 7th Ward was home to the Carolina’s most chronically insane. From murderers to crazed psychopaths, many of the poor souls trapped behind the Gothic walls would spend their entire lives there. As you walk these halls today, be sure to stay with your group. This is one place you don’t want to be committed.”

For Joubert, an 18-year-old college freshman, this depiction of mental hospital patients stung.

Because she has been a patient.

At 15, Joubert was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. The only person she’s ever harmed, she said, is herself.

“One thing that stuck out to me is that one of the actors said, ‘The voices in my head are telling me you’re going to die.’ That stuck out to me. I hear voices and it made me feel like I was being misrepresented,” she said. But even more than that, she said, she feared that the gross dramatization of inpatient facilities will scare people, especially teens like herself, from seeking help.

There are examples of asylum-based Halloween attractions all over the country. Every year at this time, right next to the chainsaw-wielding masked men and flesh-eating zombies, are the mental hospital patients. The message isn’t subtle: People with mental illness are to be feared.

But this year, under pressure from mental-health advocates, haunted attractions big and small have begun to change names and descriptions of — or have shut down completely — scenes that depicted mental illness as frightening. The activism is part of a broader, burgeoning movement to lift the stigma about mental illness, which has long led to social and employment discrimination.

This year, Carowinds changed the asylum theme to a more generalized hospital scene called “Urgent Scare.”

Recently, Cedar Fair, which operates 13 parks across the country, shut down an attraction called “FearVR: 5150,” featured at its parks in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, after a father — whose son with schizophrenia was beaten to death by police — called attention to it, according to the Los Angeles Times. The attraction got its name from the California police code 5150 for when someone is suspected of having a mental-health condition.

A Cedar Fair Entertainment spokesperson said in an email that its “evening attractions are designed to be edgy, and are aimed at an adult-only audience.” The spokesman said the intent was “never to portray mental illness,” but it closed the attraction because it was “impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween time frame.”

Last year, Susan Estes took her two young children to a Halloween theme park in Kansas City, Mo., owned by Cedar Fair Entertainment. One of the attractions they visited, called “Asylum Island,” was described as a place “where the inmates have taken control of Lakeside Mental Hospital and there’s no cure in sight.”

“There’s no way to really be prepared for what you see when you get there,” Estes said, who described a twisting maze that took visitors past a shock-treatment machine, a character who’d had a lobotomy, and a person strapped to a bed pleading to be let out.

Estes has bipolar disorder and has been hospitalized twice. After leaving the park, she said she had to explain to her children that what they saw inside is not what mental illness looks like.

“‘Mom has an illness, you’ve met friends of mine that have an illness,’ ” she said she told them. “I felt frustrated, I try so hard to destigmatize mental illness that I found it so frustrating that these images are still out there.”

Cedar Fair removed Asylum Island from its list of attractions at the Kansas City park this year. The company spokesman declined to explain if it, and the one at Carowinds, were also removed because of complaints.

Six Flags Entertainment also altered several of its Halloween attractions this year, including changing the name of “Psycho-Path Haunted Asylum” to “The Forgotten Laboratory” at a park in Massachusetts. It also changed the description of its “Massacre Medical Center” maze from”local asylum” to “local medical center” at a park in Illinois, according to a running list maintained by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Fright Fest is a long-time staple at our parks, and our haunted attractions are designed for entertainment purposes only,” said Sandra Daniels, spokeswoman for Six Flags Entertainment in an email. “When we realized that some of the theming and descriptions might have perpetrated certain stereotypes, we took immediate action as it was never our intention to offend.”

Patrick Corrigan, an expert in mental-health stigma, called the Halloween attractions “ignorant and disrespectful.” He likened the problem to companies that once marketed restaurant chains with images of Aunt Jemima and Little Black Sambo.

It’s not only insensitive, it’s also irresponsible, he said.

“It exacerbates the dangerous belief which fans the flames of discrimination — I’m not going to hire a person who is unpredictable and potentially violent,” Corrigan said. “This only adds to self-stigma and a sense of shame when people internalize these ideas.”

Smaller family-owned attractions are also responding to complaints.

Paton Blough has been arrested during bipolar episodes. An activist for mental-health awareness, Blough sent an impassioned letter to the owner of Denver Downs Farm in Anderson, S.C.,after hearing about a Halloween attraction that showed a prisoner handcuffed and in a straitjacket.

“Unfortunately, this is very real to me,” he said. “I’ve been strapped to beds and chairs in jails and hospitals.”

Blough’s letter persuaded Ron Smith, director of operations for the farm’s entertainment venues, to remove that aspect of the attraction.

“It really bothered him, so it wasn’t a big deal,” Smith said. “Some people thought it was silly, but regardless of what they thought, we didn’t even give it a second thought. We have 25 to 30 different scenes that’s part of the overall haunt, so removing one small aspect wasn’t a big deal.”

Still, some people in their town thought it was a big deal, and Blough faced some harassment online after a local news station covered the removal of the attraction, with people disparaging him for being too sensitive.

But Mary Giliberti, director of NAMI, said it’s an issue much deeper than someone’s personal offense.

“This isn’t just about feelings, it’s about health care,” she said. “I think many people who have these conditions realize there is a social discrimination and stigma against them and they internalize that … then to come to a ride and have that reinforced. You know this would never happen for other health conditions. You wouldn’t have a Halloween attraction about a cancer ward. It is mocking something that is a very serious illness.”

NAMI has helped field advocacy, sending letters to the entertainment companies explaining to them why the asylum attractions are so damaging. But like a game of whack-a-mole, they bat one down and then find out about another.

Just this week, they were notified of a Groupon offering up to 51 percent off admission to the “Psycho Asylum” in San Antonio.

And it’s not only Halloween attractions. Last week, Pete Earley, an author who writes about mental illness, called attention to a costume makeup kit being sold at Walmart that depicted a razor blade cutting a “suicide scar wound.” The big-box store removed the item from its website, and the company that makes it, Rubie’s Costume Co., removed it from its website as well, although it still sells a Psycho Ward patient costume.

Both companies apologized, according to Earley.

“I realize that some think our protests are political correctness run amok,” he said, “but when you know people who are afraid of seeking treatment because they don’t want to be seen as ‘loonies,’ you understand just how harmful these costumes can be.”


Mental Illness is Not a Horror Show

By Andrew Solomon New York Times October 26, 2016

A new virtual-reality attraction planned for Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., was announced last month in advance of the peak haunted-house season. The name, “Fear VR 5150,” was significant. The number 5150 is the California psychiatric involuntary commitment code, used for a mentally ill person who is deemed a danger to himself or others.

Upon arrival in an ersatz “psychiatric hospital exam room,” VR 5150 visitors would be strapped into a wheelchair and fitted with headphones. “The VR headset puts you in the middle of the action inside the hospital,” an article in The Orange County Register explained. “One patient seems agitated and attempts to get up from a bed. Security officers try to subdue him. A nurse gives you a shot (which you will feel), knocking you out. When you wake up in the next scene, all hell has broken loose. Look left, right and down, bloody bodies lie on the floor. You hear people whimpering in pain.” Knott’s Berry Farm is operated by Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, and Fear VR 5150 was to be featured at two other Cedar Fair parks as well.

Almost simultaneously, two similar attractions were started at Six Flags. A news release for one explained: “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.”

The Orange County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sprang into action, and Doris Schwartz, a Westchester, N.Y.-based mental-health professional, immediately emailed a roster of 130 grass-roots activists, including me, many of whom flooded Cedar Fair and Six Flags with phone calls, petitions and emails. After some heated back-and-forth, Fear VR 5150 was shelved, and Six Flags changed the mental patients in its maze into zombies.

As both a psychiatric patient and a professor of clinical psychology, I was saddened to see painful lived experiences transmogrified into spooky entertainment. I was also unnerved to consider that I was someone else’s idea of a ghoul, a figure more or less interchangeable with a zombie.

I became severely, clinically depressed for the first time in 1994. I was unable to speak, unable to get out of bed, unable to function in the world, and I thought of suicide constantly. I was afraid all the time but didn’t know what I was afraid of; I was numb to my own emotions and stripped of vitality.

I have mostly done better these last two decades through the rigors of intensive treatment by both a psychoanalyst and a psychopharmacologist. I now take a cocktail of five medications and I go to therapy weekly. My mental illness is largely (though not entirely) under control, but as my therapist pointed out recently when I was cavalier about some warning signs, “In this room, Andrew, we never forget that you are entirely capable of taking the express elevator to the bargain basement of mental health.”

I wrote about my experiences with depression in a book, “The Noonday Demon,” and spoke about them in a TED talk, and I now get floods of mail from people who are dealing with mental illness — most of them isolated, terrified and bewildered; many of them unable to access the kind of decent care that has been so transformative for me.

For those of us with firsthand experience with mental illness — especially those who have experienced trauma in a mental hospital — such entertainment ventures cut much too close to the bone. When my mother was dying of cancer, she was admitted to some miserable wards, but I find it hard to envision a Halloween event at which you would pretend to be getting chemotherapy and vomiting constantly while surrounded by patients driven into the quasi-dementia that comes of unremitting pain.

I have a pretty good sense of humor about myself. We all use the language of mental illness cavalierly. We say that our parents or our kids are driving us crazy; we complain we will soon go mad if the traffic doesn’t clear; we accuse Donald Trump of having a personality disorder (which, whether accurate or not, is still intended as a disparagement). But I have also spent a lifetime trying to laugh when a friend has driven me past a psychiatric hospital and commented on the loons inside, to crack a smile when people have expressed their emotional extravagance with a jest about suicide.

Sanity and mental illness lie on a spectrum, and most people occasionally cross over from one side to the other. It’s the proximity of mental illness rather than its obscurity that makes it so scary. But it should be scary in a “fix the broken care system” way or in a “figure out the brain’s biology” way, and not in a “scream for laughs” kind of way.

The rhetoric with which Cedar Fair attempted to mollify the activists was troubling. The company wrote by way of explanation, “Our evening attractions are designed to be edgy, and are aimed at an adult-only audience.” But “edgy” is not in general a euphemism for “stigmatizing of a disenfranchised population,” and the defense that the attraction was for adults only seemed a very token mitigation — as though adults were not the progenitors of most chauvinism and hatred.

The attractions at Cedar Fair and Six Flags were not intended as representations of what mental illness is really like; they were incidentally demeaning, rather than willfully so. But how readily do such lapses approximate hate speech? And with what potential to provoke misunderstanding, fear and even harm to people with few defenses?

The misperception that mentally ill people are inherently dangerous is one of the most treacherous ideas in circulation about us. It surfaces widely every time a mass shooter is on the loose, and results in the subjugation of people who are not menacing in any way.

I recognize the free-speech claim that individuals and entertainment companies have every right to demean people with mental illnesses, but these representations have very real consequences — the stigmatization of the mentally ill, and the prejudice, poor treatment and violations of their rights that naturally follow.

Other people’s fear of us can have terrible consequences. There are regular reports of police who respond aggressively or violently to the erratic behavior of mentally ill people, whether they are armed or not — the latest being the killing of Deborah Danner, a woman with schizophrenia, by a New York City Police Officer. There are more mentally ill people in our prison system than in our health care system.

It is possible to honor the power of burlesque even as we insist on respect for people who are too frequently harmed by it. In some hypothetical Venn diagram, there is an extravagant overlap between fun and cruelty. Slapstick, farce, satire — all these involve laughing at people who are slipping on a banana peel, or knocking their teeth in, or sitting down on a chair that isn’t there to find themselves splayed on the floor. We laugh at big noses or flat noses, at vulgarity and buffoonery, at politics antithetical to our own. Clowns did this creepy work before there were creepy clowns on the loose.

I think of the effect these attractions would have not only on people without mental illnesses, who might be inspired to patronize, shun or even harm those of us who do have them, but also on the large portion of the American population who battle these challenges daily. Will they be more hesitant to come out about a psychiatric diagnosis? Will they be less likely to check themselves in for care? The injury is not only disrespect from the outside, but also a terrible doubting from within.

Our nation is in a moment when prejudice runs riot. In this election season, assertions of strength have often overtaken moral righteousness in the public imagination; success has been posited as incompatible with empathy. That rejection of empathy is an authentic poison, pressing some people to understand themselves as less human than others, a danger associated with a proliferation of suicides. It’s hard to think well of yourself in a world that sees you as a threat.

Andrew Solomon (@Andrew_Solomon) is the author of “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” and “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.”