The Perils of Stigma Busting: Why I Hate the “NUT HOUSE”
When I started teaching Movies & Madness in 2004, I encouraged students to become vigorous advocates challenging “inaccurate and hurtful representations of mental illness” (NAMI). I receive NAMI StigmaBuster Alerts by email and have taken action by writing letters and emails and making phone calls on many occasions.
In 2005, NAMI issued a StigmaBuster Alert arguing that the “Crazy for You Bear” offered by the Vermont Teddy Bear Company for Valentine’s Day was offensive and damaging largely because it minimizes, trivializes, and makes fun of the challenges faced by people with mental illness and their families every day. That year, thousands of people, myself included, wrote letters to the Vermont Teddy Bear Company asking that the company stop selling the bear and that the CEO of the company resign from the board of a large hospital. While VTB pulled advertising for the bear, it continued to sell it throughout the peak Valentine’s season. The company apologized saying it meant no harm or disrespect but continued to sell the bear. Eventually, the CEO did resign from Fletcher Allen Health Care’s Board amidst the flurry of negative publicity. Win. Right? Not entirely.
The backlash those of us who challenge such products or images face is often as vigorous and harsh as our protests.
The backlash those of us who challenge such products or images face is often as vigorous and harsh as our protests. I learned very quickly that, when you criticize a product that makes people laugh and smile just after they’ve laughed and smiled at it, they get defensive and cranky. During a presentation to high school students on the stigma of mental illness, I showed an image of the bear in question and the audience members laughed when they saw it. I asked them what they thought of the product and got a whole lot of “It’s cute” and “It’s funny”. Not one spontaneous critical comment. I then asked them why NAMI and other like-minded organizations were asking VTB to kill the product? One young man said something to the effect that some people just can’t take a joke and need to get over it. Disturbingly, many of his fellow students were nodding in agreement. I spent the next several minutes explaining the painful message sent by the use of straightjackets in products intended to entertain or amuse. For real people who have experienced the use of restraints (in person or through their family members) or have had to make difficult choices about inpatient care and guardianship (the bear came with commitment papers), the bear wasn’t cute or funny. It was a painful reminder that the rest of the culture they live in just doesn’t get it.
I run into similar reactions when I assert that the CBS television series Criminal Minds is, without a doubt, one of the most stigmatizing programs on television. In case you aren’t one of the billions of people who watch Criminal Minds on CBS and A&E, the show “revolves around an elite team of FBI profilers who analyze the country’s most twisted criminal minds, anticipating their next moves before they strike again”. The “unsubs” profiled in each episode are the monsters who occupy our collective cultural nightmares. These characters commit the strangest most horrific and inexplicable crimes and the team catches them, usually in the space of 50 minutes. They look fabulous doing it too. Unfortunately, the writers for the series have a tendency to use psychiatric diagnostic labels as a plot device designed to neatly explain to the audience why the unsub did what he/she did. In addition, the writers have a tendency to explain the behavior of villains, with or without diagnostic labels, as having been caused by trauma which often took place in childhood or adolescence. No diagnosis is off the writers’ table. The vast majority of the time, unsubs are described as psychopaths, sociopaths, or sexual sadists. These aren’t terms used in psychology/psychiatry traditionally but people watching the show rarely if ever know that. Sometimes killers are referred to broadly as psychotic or suffering from psychosis reinforcing the belief that psychosis and violence are inextricably linked. There are often references to unsubs having seen psychologists/psychiatrists or having been institutionalized. Some killers are given very specific diagnoses. There have been at least two serial murderers with OCD on the series. Clara Hayes, who had miraculously escaped her house burning down as a teen, is a serial arsonist and murderer. She is also described as having OCD with scrupulosity and an obsession concerning the number 3. Vincent Rowlings, witnessed (and videotaped) his mother’s murder as a child. He later develops OCD and kills at least 13 women. OCD isn’t associated with an increased incidence of violence or criminality. As my teenager would. “I’m just sayin’…”.
Why is this problematic? Students, who can be surprisingly passionate in defending their love of Criminal Minds, argue that they know the difference between fantasy and reality. They know it’s just for fun. A diversion. It doesn’t affect their thinking, emotions, or behavior. As a social psychologist, I know better. People say they aren’t affected by media images all the time. They are wrong. Pairing diagnostic labels or even vague references to psychosis with vividly memorable crimes creates an illusory correlation. Let’s say you are watching your local news and a teaser comes on. “Man arrested in beheading murder had mental health problems.” The illusory correlation is between the two vivid images in the teaser: beheading murder and mental health problems. As the viewer, you hear that pairing enough (once or twice will do) and you will consciously or not believe it.
People say they aren’t affected by media images all the time. They are wrong.
This brings me to my final backlash example. Since the start of the NCAA men’s basketball season, two things have irritated me: the women don’t get coverage and the “NUT HOUSE” spirit gear being advertised for the team. I complained about these t-shirts a year ago and was either ignored, dismissed, or scoffed at. The OSU men’s team is currently ranked number 2 in the nation and is a blast to watch. I am a Buckeye born and raised. I am not an alum but you doubt my Buckeye patriotism at your own peril. My Ph.D. may be from UN-L, but I bleed scarlet and gray. When I saw the ads on Facebook, I clicked through to see not one t-shirt but four separate products: a towel, ball cap, t-shirt, and sweatshirt.
I decided to post photos of the products with a call to action to NAMI organizations around the state and to the over 500 people who are my Facebook friends and my 200+ followers on Twitter. I Tweeted OSU’s president; I’m guessing he didn’t see it. The only reactions I have gotten thus far were a “Thanks for the heads up” from a local mental health advocate, a paternalistic attempt to inform me that a buckeye is in fact a nut, and a passive-aggressive post from a friend of my husband about happily going to the “NUT HOUSE” to watch the game. Speaking of my husband, he was given one of the t-shirts last year as a gift and admits that he doesn’t fully understand my “issue”. Nevertheless, he has not worn the shirt. Smart man. (By the way, I am well aware that the student section has been called the “Nut House” so don’t bother trying to liberate me from my ignorance on that one.)
Here’s my issue. Yes, “NUT HOUSE” refers to the fact the a buckeye is a nut. I DO know that. Simultaneously, however, the reference calls up the well-trodden mental pathway to images of “nut houses”. What’s that image look like? When I ask students about their definition, they start with synonyms: loony bin, rubber room, psych ward, cuckoo’s nest, asylum…. If I ask them to imagine how they would feel if they were in a “nut house”, their overwhelming response is “afraid”. The double message of the “NUT HOUSE” products is that coming to our house is dangerous and we are scary. Our fans are “crazy” and you should be afraid. It’s all good fun. No amount of pleading or explanation on my part will make these products go away. Why? People think they are “funny” and “cool”. People smile or laugh when they see them and now I’m trying to make them feel guilty for it. People really hate when I do that. Once again, I am a humorless academic whose political correctness has gone wild. I know that my message will be dismissed by President Gee and virtually everyone else in the Buckeye Nation. This fact is a great disappointment to me and reminds me of just how far we have to go. The illusory correlation people in our culture still make between mental illness and violence can’t be denied. This is particularly the case for schizophrenia and other disorders which involve psychosis such as bipolar and schizoaffective. The fact remains that, while overt expressions of prejudice directed at any number of groups of people in our culture are now effectively taboo, the same cannot yet be said about people with mental illness. We are still fair game.
I will watch and I will cheer. I am a Buckeye. I will, however, continue to argue that these products are offensive, thoughtless, and above all else, completely unnecessary. Buckeye fans can be just as intimidating in their own house or yours (should you not be a Buckeye) without these products.
If you are a Buckeye (or not) and would like to see these products discontinued, take action. Perhaps if there are enough of us, we won’t be dismissed.
E. Gordon Gee: Office of the President 205 Bricker Hall, 190 North Oval Mall, Columbus, OH 43210-1357, Phone: (614) 292-2424, Fax: (614) 292-1231