An excellent piece in today’s New York Time by Professor of Clinical
Psychology, Andrew Solomon. Among several other points, the article
highlights the work of our own Doris Schwartz (Deputy Director of the MHA
of Westchester) and her work in mobilizing mental health advocates across
the country in the battle to close the virtual reality ride at Knott’s
Berry Farm that mimics someone with mental illness in a California
psychiatric facility.As I have said consistently with recent successes
around the mental health education bill and the mental health tax check
off, when we speak with the same collective voice, we are an incredibly
powerful constituency. This is another prime example of the power of our
community. The Opinion Pages

Mental Illness Is Not a Horror Show
Andrew Solomon


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

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

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.

Glenn Liebman, CEO

Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc.

194 Washington Avenue Suite 415

Albany, NY 12210

(518)434-0439 x 220

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