Selling stigma: Ridiculing and demonising people with mental health problems for fun and profit

26 Aug

Stigma spoiled identity Goffman

Every now and then, they’ll crop up. For fun and profit, a business will offer for sale a product – whether that’s a teeshirt, mug, fancy dress costume, tickets to a theme park ride or other product – that’s based on ridiculing and demonising a vulnerable and marginalised group, namely people with mental health problems. Where racist and homophobic products would bring swift condemnation and be pulled before the production stage, in some corners people with mental health problems are still seen as being very much fair game. But that is starting to change.

In the past, people affected by mental health stigma and discrimination – people with mental health problems and their friends, family and supporters – may have kept quiet out of shame or fear of exposing themselves. There is still a huge amount of shame and fear, stigma and discrimination, even though some (such as Observer journalist Elizabeth Day in her recent comment piece) doubt it exists. That’s like saying that, because someone doesn’t experience racism personally then it just doesn’t exist, which is misguided and misinformed. Nowadays, profiteering from the suffering of people with mental health problems is being challenged more often. And, sometimes it makes a difference. Two examples from last Halloween:

  • Asda (and other retailers) marketed “mental patient” fancy dress costumes. When this was challenged, Asda quickly withdrew the products from sale, apologised and donated £25,000 to mental health charities.
  • In contrast, Thorpe Park only agreed to rename its “scary mental patient” live action horror maze, Asylum (part of its annual Fright Nights season), after heavy prompting. In fact, Thorpe Park only agreed to rename Asylum it had been closed for the season and whilst it was being investigated by Surrey police for hate crimes. Fright Nights begins in only a few weeks’ time. It remains to be seen what theme it’s live action horror maze will appear under this year.Daily Mail mug

The offering that’s come to my attention today – and promped me to set up a new “selling stigma” page to collate such incidents – is More T Vicar and The Daily Mash’s “mental hospital” teeshirt and mug (pictured right) (£17.99 and £10 each respectively, plus post and packing). Someone at The Daily Mash thought these products were just right for its customers. Someone at More T Vicar embraced the opportunity to sell them on their behalf. Bad decision. And, quite frankly, a bad design.

So far, both companies have been contacted – by me and others – via email, via online contact forms, via product reviews and, of course, via twitter. The only response at this point is that More T Vicar has changed the blurb beside the teeshirt from, “The lunatics have taken over the asylum and are printing their own teeshirts” to, “A thought-provoking T shirt design from The Daily Mash emporium.” But both products are still very much for sale. Let’s see whether these companies will follow in the footsteps of Asda (swift withdrawal, apology and donation) or the Thorpe Park (dragging it out till they’re reported to the police and have made plenty of money from sales) – or will simply carry on ridiculing and demonising people with mental health problems fo fun and profit.. 

In the meantime, I now have a website page on which to collate what will hopefully be an ever-decreasing incidence of such offensive and harmful products.

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Here’s what I wrote to More T Vicar earlier today:

Open quotesYour “lunatics have taken over the asylum” teeshirt and mug demonise and ridicule a vulnerable and marginalised group, namely people with mental health problems.

Your products may also be in breach of Daily Mail copyright, apparently using their namestyle and logo. I have written to the Daily Mail to let them know that, despite their recent excellent coverage of mental health topics, their namestyle and logo is being used on offensive products which perpetuate negative stereotypes about people with mental health problems and contribute to discrimination.

You should be aware that, last year, after a public outcry, Asda, Tesco and Amazon withdrew from sale offensive “mental patient” fancy dress costumes. Asda’s response was welcomed: it acted swiftly, apologised sincerenly and donated £25,000 to mental health charities Mind and Rethink.

I strongly recommend that you withdraw these two products from sale immediately, apologise and consider making a donation to mental health charities, and involve your staff with mental health awareness campaign Time to Change, who will be happy to help. You can contact them here.

Bear in mind that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any one year. Workers at your company, friends and family and, perhaps most important to your business, customers will all have experience of mental illness. Ridiculing and demonising people with mental health problems isolates people, stops them coming forward to ask for health, prolongs unnecessary suffering and contributes to a climate where cuts to mental health services are 20% deeper than other acute hospitals. The very insitutions you are ridiculing are being cut back even as we speak.

Looking forward to hearing from you that these actions have been taken.Close quotes

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  • 26 August – More T Vicar revised their promotional text to “A thought provoking product” (from “The lunatics have taken over the asylum and printed their own teeshirts”). Both products remain on sale.
  • 26 August – More T Vicar deleted 3 negative reviews of their “mental hospital” products.
  • 27 August – More T Vicar revised their promotional text to “The Daily Mail is insane”. Both products remain on sale.
  • 27 August – More T Vicar deleted all negative reviews of their “mental hospital” products and disabled the function which had enabled people to leave reviews on their website.
  • 27 August – More T Vicar began sending out a standard reply to people who contacted them complaining about the “mental hospital” products with points remarkably similar to those made by Thorpe Park. Are they taking tips from Thorpe Park’s car crash PR handling of Asylum? Here are their arguments for continuing to sell their “mental hospital” product range:
    • ” … we have also also received positive comments from people who claim to have mental health issues and find the design amusing.” That’s like saying, “We found a black man who doesn’t find our golliwog offensive, so that’s okay then.” And I wonder whether the people who have “mental health issues” have been sectioned in a psychiatric hospital.
    • “We do not believe that the design makes fun of people with mental health issues …” That’s their belief, but does it stand up to logic? No, for the reasons set out above.
    • “… and it is certainly not intended that it should.” First, it’s about harm, not offence: stigma and discrimination cause real harm to real people’s lives every day. I live with their effects as do many others. It’s about harm, not offence. Secondly, whether or not something is intended to cause offence doesn’t mean harm isn’t caused: the little girl who accidentally shot her machine gun teacher today no doubt didn’t intend to do so, but her teacher is still dead. Third, once you know about the harm and still continue to do so, that is intentional harm. Once you know about the harm, ignorance is no defence.
    • “We have noted your complaint [and w]e will continue [to] keep our policy under review.” Yadda yadda yadda. Blah blah blah. Fancy words for “Go away now”.

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4 Responses to “Selling stigma: Ridiculing and demonising people with mental health problems for fun and profit”

  1. Emmy 27 August 2014 at 1:59 am #

    Wonderful post. I also wondered about mental illness poorly portrayed in film or TV. While not a mental illness per se, narcolepsy is so badly represented in that medium I sometimes wonder how they can get away with it. Off topic though, it’s been ages since I’ve seen a Penguin book. That looks like an antique!

  2. julie gosling 28 August 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Reblogged this on openfuturesvision.

  3. MEN HEAL 2 September 2014 at 5:43 am #

    Fantastic article. I also remember when ASDA slipped up with their jibe. I loved this article. Originally written.

    Mike from MEN HEAL (http:// menheal.org.uk) and Breakthru (http:// breakthru.org.uk).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why doesn’t depression get as much sympathy as other diseases? Ruby Wax on Mental Health stigma | Trauma and Dissociation - 8 December 2014

    […] Selling stigma: Ridiculing and demonising people with mental health problems for fun and profit (sectioneduk.wordpress.com) […]

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