Mental health as a pink ribbon illness: Will we get there?

This week, a new Knott’s Berry Farm attraction, “5150: FearVR,” drew criticism from advocates nationwide, resulting in Knott’s deciding to close the Halloween installation. The allegation? Propagating stigma that is empirically linked to discrimination, criminalization, and fear and shame that keeps people from seeking life-saving help.

Beyond the advocacy community, however, feelings about the attraction are mixed.

So, clearing the noise of heated rhetoric for a moment, we asked ourselves: Are mental health advocates taking the fun out of Halloween by taking a hard line on stigma? Or do the tangible impacts of stigma on help-seeking behavior and real world discrimination play a role here?

For some, it may be easy to take a surface-level look at this issue and dismiss it as censorship or political correctness, noting that all kinds of politically incorrect subjects have been the basis of horror entertainment for decades. But does that mean that we can’t evolve mental health in the same way we have other previously stigmatized health issues like cancer and HIV/AIDS?

For just a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a teenage Knott’s Berry Farm visitor who happens to be struggling with the beginnings of a serious mental illness. You and your friends enjoy a spin through a virtual psychiatric hospital where, according to an LA Times reviewer, after you “check into the mythical Meadowbrook Institute,” you are “strapped into a wheelchair in the psychiatric hospital’s exam room” where a “demonically possessed” young patient “unleashes chaos throughout the hospital and takes mental control of the medical staff.”

Would you be less likely to confide in a friend that you, yourself are having disturbing thoughts that you can’t seem to control, or are beginning to hear or see things that others don’t? (Both are common early experiences of psychosis, which affects 100,000 young people in America each year. While highly treatable in its early stages, relatively few find help before a crisis emerges.)

Here’s how we got here, and why we think it matters:

For anyone who missed the lead up to the closing of the attraction, last week’s LA Times review sparked widespread outrage, resulting in Knott’s dropping the term 5150 from the attraction’s name on the day it opened — a direct reference to a California Welfare and Institutions Code that authorizes involuntary confinement of an individual deemed to be either gravely disabled or a danger to themselves or others due to psychiatric illness.

The storyline, however, remained unchanged. Advocates including Saddleback pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, who lost their son to depression in 2013, continued to push for its closure.

In a statement on Tuesday, the amusement park explained its decision to close the attraction in response to feedback:

“Over the past week we have heard from a number of people expressing their concern that one of our temporary, Halloween attractions – FearVR – 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.”

It’s unclear from the statement as to whether the company understands the underlying issue at hand. And that leaves us with the real haunt behind this whole issue: the fact that 5150: FearVR existed at all as a major attraction at multiple locations in one of the biggest theme parks in America.

Teams of entertainment professionals wrote, produced and approved this attraction – at a family amusement park aimed at young people, no less – demonstrating a complete blindspot to the harms of so blatantly associating mental illness with fear and violence, and how this may turn people off from seeking help at a psychiatric hospital. Imagine the uproar that would result from a similar attraction focused on HIV/AIDS, and compare this with the acceptance, and support, of FearVR. The very development of this attraction reveals just how ingrained negative preconceptions of mental illness are within our communities and the enormous gap in public education about brain health.

It’s imperative that entertainment professionals know the facts:

Partners for StrongMinds is working to ensure young people seek the care they need and get back to their lives before a crisis unfolds, but this cannot happen if we continue to send the message to the public that people who experience brain disorders are violent and scary.

For those still less than confident as to why any of this matters, we ask: Would a virtual cancer hospital in which a young person undergoing chemotherapy for stage four brain cancer pass as theme park amusement?

Exactly.

Neuro-psychiatric illnesses should be no different.

If there is ever to be the kind of pink ribbon tour de force for the care and cure of brain disorders as there is for breast cancer, we need to recognize and respect brain disorders for what they are: a functional impairment of one of the most complex organs in the body requiring an array of treatment and support, as early as possible.  

Young people being too ashamed and afraid to seek help is resulting in young lives being lost to treatable brain disorders every day in this country. I can’t imagine Knott’s Berry Farm, or any brand, for that matter, risking a hand in that.

This is not the first time that public outcry has stopped a major brand from propagating mental health stigma, and it will likely not be the last. When these arise, it’s important to remember that the issue isn’t just insensitivity, but irresponsibility, because it fuels the very ideas at the root of discrimination and prejudice which serve as real barriers to recovery. Thank you for standing with us to clear the way for mental health to be America’s new pink ribbon.

Gary Tsai, M.D. is the Medical Director and Science Officer of the County of Los Angeles Substance Abuse Prevention and Control, a former APA / SAMHSA Minority Fellow and Advisory Board member of P4SM. Having experienced the stigma and criminalization that often accompanies serious mental illness as the son of a mother with schizophrenia, he is also the producer and co-directer of an award-winning documentary film called Voices that focuses on human and untold stories of psychosis. 

Chantel Garrett is founding director of P4SM, which is focused on connecting people to early psychosis treatment through public education. She is a former financial services marketing executive and champion of her brother’s recovery, who lives with schizophrenia.

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