You are on page 1of 8

Research Assessment #3

Date: October 26, 2016

Subject: Mental Illness is Not a Horror Show

MLA or APA citation: Solomon, Andrew. "Mental Illness Is Not a Horror Show." The New

York Times. The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/opinion/mental-illness-is-not-a-horror-show.html>.

Analysis:

‘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.’ A new virtual-reality attraction at Knott’s Berry

Farm in California stereotypes the daily life of the mentally ill. The attraction is called, “Fear VR

5150,” and 5150 represents the number refers to a section of the California Welfare and

Institutions Code, which authorizes a clinician to involuntarily confine a person suspected of

having a mental disorder that makes them a danger to themselves or others. And once again,

mass media has denigrated the mentally ill.

What hit me the most was the image shown in this article. “A person sits huddled on the

ground in a circle of light as a crowd of animated people look on from the shadows,” is how

people with mental illness feel when they are judged upon based on who they are or the disorder

they have. And now that Knott’s Berry Farm is promoting this kind of ‘entertainment,’ it’s only

going to further dehumanize the mentally ill and prevent them from getting the treatment they

desire.
Through this article, I was able to get a glimpse on the author and his experience with

mental illness. Solomon is saddened to see painful lived experiences transformed into spooky

‘entertainment’. He describes his experience as he “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.”

What really got me riled up was the fact that one of my favorite amusement parks ever

was promoting the stigma involving mental health.The place I enjoyed the most became a place

that has offended me and many mental health advocates. Shame on Knott’s Berry Farm and on

Los Angeles Times for presenting illness as entertainment. People with mental illness are

statistically more likely to be a victim of a crime than to commit a crime. Stigma and

misrepresentation of the nature of mental illness continue to make it difficult for people with

mental illness to get the treatment they need. Why don’t reporters write about the shortage of

psychiatric beds in hospitals, the extreme difficulty of getting very ill people into treatment, and

the unavailability of long-term effective treatment because of misuse of funding?

Through this article, I’ve learned about the many false accusations pointed

towards those who are mentally ill. I realized how hurt one may feel when others associate their

illness as ‘criminal or violent’. These stereotypes can really harm a person, and possibly degrade

the individual. I realized I need to keep my options open, and I learned not to solely judge a

person due to what media shows them as. As Solomon said, ‘It’s hard to think well of yourself in

a world that sees you as a threat.’

Mental Illness Is Not a Horror Show

Disability
Andrew Solomon

DISABILITY OCT. 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.

Do you think Halloween-style depictions of mentally ill people should be an acceptable part of

the holiday, or do they lead to prejudice and mistreatment?

Share your thoughts »

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.