In the playground of mental illness there is always a risk that someone is going to get hurt when people start telling jokes. It’s like everyone has their own limit of what is acceptable and what is incredibly bad-taste. A few weeks ago UK comedian and mental health advocate Stephen Fry found this out for himself.
He got roasted on Twitter for a joke he made about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) ( see David Adam’s comment on Guardian). The backlash began to hit. Fry was attacked for joking about OCD when he “didn’t have OCD”. Apparently it’s okay to joke about an illness you have yourself but not any other.
Actually Stephen Fry does have OCD so considered himself worthy of making such a joke and a few terse words by Fry saw the whole thing die down.
It raises the issue though of what is okay and what is not when it comes to jokes about mental illness. Social media is overflowing with the jokes. memes and one-liners. It leaves me wondering just what that comic relief does for the world we live in.
I’m fairly sure that most everyone who tells these jokes will have an opinion on what is okay and what crosses the line to being bad taste and even stigmatising. I totally accept that my opinion is just one, and may not be something you agree with. That’s okay. What I really want to do is get us thinking about what we’re doing in sharing these jokes, and to be very sure of exactly what it is we are laughing at and what effect it has on the greater world of mental illness. What too, does it do to those individuals who experience the issues we choose to laugh about.
Think about this for a moment… where do everyday people get their information about mental illness and what it is like to live with? There’s really not that much information out there, unless you go specifically hunting for it and that makes me think that people get their information from movies, television, news stories and jokes. From the media. Personally I find that a little frightening because too often it’s not very accurate.
Here’s a one-liner I saw on Facebook a while back:
“Go ahead, be the reason I get off with an insanity plea.”
So there’s a funny side to that? But what if that is, but a small amount of information, someone reads about those of us with mental illnesses. It reads to me that we’re all just waiting for our violent moment, then to be forgiven because “we’re mad”? You might take other interpretations from it. Perhaps it is a comment on mentally ill people who have committed a crime and “got off”? And then maybe it’s just funny, and we need to loosen up and laugh at it?
On a similar note:
“FYI: Before you choose to piss me off I suffer from a mental illness and could easily kill you and plead insanity… have a nice day.”
That might be hilarious. But then it might ‘educate’ the person reading it to believe that all people with mental illness are dangerous. If we’re posting a joke like that, then no wonder we have an issue with stigma. If the reader doesn’t have the accurate information on how dangerous or otherwise mentally ill people are, then I suggest that this joke will just heighten their fear of the mentally ill.
There’s a meme that does the rounds on a regular basis, but of course wouldn’t you know it, I have been able to find it when I want it. You might remember it. It speaks of aspects of life inside a mental hospital, somewhere I know only too well. There is talk of peeing your pants, rides in the ‘special bus’ and of course, licking the walls. The question I ask is whether these are the aspects that are accurate and realistic? Do they tell about life as it is inside a mental hospital?
I admit I have peed my pants in such a place (my muscular reaction to ECT) but most people don’t. The special bus? Yes, I have been on a few of those. But licking the walls? That’s not one that I’ve done, and actually in all my hospital admissions (and there’s more than I can count) I have never seen anyone else do this.
No doubt someone will tell me they’ve witnessed the licking walls, but it still doesn’t strike me as an accurate reflection of life inside. And even if it was, is it fair to make a joke out of someone doing this in their distress? Personally, I don’t think so.
I think jokes about mental illness have their place, and yes it’s good to be able to laugh at ourselves. But I think we have to be very careful. There’s not that much accurate information out there about mental illness, and if we add to that with inaccurate or unfair material then we simply add to misinformation and ultimately stigma.
I was terrified when talk of admission to hospital began for me (this was back in the mid 1990’s). My knowledge of hospital was books/movies like One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and An Angel At My Table. Both are historical accounts but that is all I had to base my decision on. Patients in mental hospitals don’t tend to get many visitors, so where do people get their information from? How do they know that actually admission will be a good thing. It took me weeks to get past my prejudice and accept that it was where I needed to be. ‘Nut house’ and ‘Looney bin’ were the words that came to mind, and as ill as I knew I was, I was sure these words didn’t need to apply for me. When I got past the inaccurate information I actually allowed myself to be admitted to a place that saved my life.
I think that it is important that we don’t falsify or scandalise information on mental illness. It’s hard enough to get accurate information right simply because most of us don’t talk about it. Yes, we’re scared of the stigma… and rightly so at the moment. We need to be careful that the information that is circulating is firstly accurate but also doesn’t make fun of a person’s suffering and distress.
If we want to tell jokes about mental illness, let’s make sure they are accurate and not stigmatising. Let’s not inadvertently add to the battle we already have.
What do you think?
© Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.