Playing at Being Mad

Last night I attended a Secret Cinema screening. For those not familiar with the concept, for Secret Cinema you aren’t told in advance what the film is but you’re given a series of clues and told to turn up at a secret location at a certain time armed with specific props that are relevant to the film setting. So it was with great trepidation that I and a couple of friends arrived at Ladbroke Grove station wearing dressing gowns, each carrying a pair of slippers and a toothbrush, to be met by a series of creepy men in white coats directing us down residential streets until we came to a disused hospital. Whereupon we were given hospital gowns and a ‘prescription pad’ of vouchers with which to purchase drinks. We had realised in advance that the film was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the whole setting of the eerie , dimly-lit hospital, complete with Nurse Ratched and a host of ‘crazy’ patients made for a fantastically immersive experience. With impressive attention to detail the hospital had been converted to a 1960’s asylum and we were free for a while to wander around the rooms and wards, occasionally being accosted by the actor patients, brusque nurses or stern psychiatrists. Many people got into the role, laughing maniacally, running around and participating fully in what was perceived to be “crazy” behaviour. People were taking photographs everywhere, as they watched with gruesome fascination while the mechanics of a transorbital lobotomy were demonstrated, or an actor was dragged to a bed and strapped down for his session of ECT (complete with scarily realistic convulsions). It was how I imagine a modern-day Bedlam would be: leering, gawping spectators being entertained by the lunatics.
There was no denying the morbid intrigue nor the fun of dressing up as a patient and going through the motions of being mad: people being photographed or filmed repetitively rocking in chairs, lying on hospital beds looking crazed, gulping down “medication” shots in little paper cups, scrawling on the walls in red ink in one room, being “assessed” before having a label of ‘sick’ or ‘disturbed’ slapped on their hospital gown. It was, all in all, an impressive entertainment experience.
It was therefore something of a much-needed shock to the system for the audience when, just before the film started, an advert was screened for the Time to Change campaign to reduce the stigma of mental illness and end discrimination against those with mental health problems. It pointed out the social and employment discrimination that is still rife where mental illness is concerned, perpetuated in no small part by the continuing stereotypes of those with mental illnesses as frenzied, babbling lunatics. It struck me that this was a unique kind of educational opportunity to show up the implicit assumptions many people have about mental illness, seeing as we had spent the past hour or so indulging in that stereotype with glee. Although I have seen it several times before, there was something about the setting and being moved by that advert that added an additional layer of pathos to the film, particularly when all McMurphy’s rebellious revelry (which we’d been mirroring in the run-up to the screening) culminates in a tragic, sobering outcome.
As I sat in my dressing gown on the Central Line heading home, I wondered whether in addition to enjoying the event, others would leave perhaps just a little more enlightened and sympathetic to the profound distress of mental illness, and the damaging effects of prejudicial stereotypes, than when they went in.


  1. While sympathetic to the travails of mental health, I would think that employment discrimination is perfectly justified. All hiring is an act of discrimination. I can’t fault a business that looks for people who are on-time, organized, excellent with customers, stable and dependable.

    The fact is that most mental health makes working at a job impossible, but this is not the fault of anyone. Campaigns to that make employers feel guilty about this is unfair. Instead, I think mental health support and infrastructure should be a huge focus of any public health system (hugely ignored in the States). The best way for an employer to help people with mental disabilities is to pay their taxes and advocate for a society where mental health is regarded with compassion and importance.

    • I disagree completely with the view that most mental health problems make working at a job impossible. A point that many people seem to miss is that quite often people with mental health problems can be productive, creative, insightful, hard-working and incredibly valuable employees. The fact that they might need some flexibility and sensitivity in working arrangements should not deter an employer any more than it should if they were a working parent with a young child, had a physical health problem that required time off for hospital appointments or a physical disability that perhaps resulted in some specialist mobility needs. Some of the best and brightest academics I know have mental health issues and it would be utterly foolish to write them off as unemployable purely in virtue of their diagnosis.
      This is not about making employers feels guilty for ‘discriminating’ but rather about educating them that there’s an awful lot more to a person than their diagnosis, and that it’s the ignorance and prejudice surrounding mental health problems that entails many people are written off from jobs they could excel in given half a chance.

      • Maybe it would be helpful to better define “mental health problems.” I would completely agree with you if we’re talking about problems like personality disorders, high-functioning autism and CP, A.D.H.D. etc.

        That said, I get edgy when campaigns are begun in the name of “educating” others. The presumption is often that one group is enlightened, while the other group suffers from ignorance. Usually, there’s plenty of ignorance in both groups.

        Example: Of those advocating employer education, how many have actually struggled to successfully run a real business in the real world for a legitimate amount of time, like 5 years (cancer is “cured” after 5 years of remission, and a business is considered successful if in the black after 5 years)? I suspect a small number. If so, I posit that they will not be especially effective because they will be speaking to a group that isn’t asking to be taught anything and probably doesn’t trust the “teachers” anyway. I also suspect that business owners could teach the educators some important things about managing difficult employees.

  2. As far as education goes, I believe that it should go both ways. There’s no point in people demanding rights to employment if there’s no realistic possibility of employers having the resources or adapting their working practices to meet those demands. I imagine many people aren’t aware of what’s involved in running a business and the various pressures there are on managers. Part of the problem is that there isn’t two-way communication here and employers might well see such campaigns as just another bureacratic, politically-correct strain on their limited resources, whilst campaigners (often unfairly) consider employers to be ignorant and prejudiced.

    What I’m talking about needing here is getting to the point at which a dialogue can be had that enables both sides to appreciate the other’s position and attempt to negotiate a way towards conciliation. At present, the stigma associated with mental illness is such that employers routinely consider candidates with mental health problems to be less capable of doing the job than another potential candidate and my point is just that this needn’t be the case. By the same token, people shouldn’t expect to be handed a job that they might not be the best candidate for, as it might be true that some aspect of their condition would make it hard for them competently to do the job.
    But until employers cease taking a blanket approach of throwing those with mental health problems into the ‘thanks but no thanks’ pile, there’s no chance of presumptions about capability and competence being challenged, or of people being able to prove they could be a valuable asset to a team.
    So it’s not about sitting employers down and drilling them with anti-stigma messages, which (unsurprisingly) they are likely to resent, but rather doing more to break down the harmful presumptions that exist on both sides of the fence.

    By the way, I agree the term ‘mental health problems’ is vague and nebulous, and can encompass a huge range of conditions, but it’s a compromise term that acknowledges that something is wrong for the person without reducing them or thier issue to a medicalised diagnosis.

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