People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

More Similar Than Different

If you aren’t steeped in the mental health blogosphere, you probably missed the story of a Waunakee, WI high school dance team’s recent prize-winning performance, “We Get Crazy.” The LaCrosse Tribune says that the routine featured “all 18 dancers bouncing to hip-hop music, their hair wild, heavy black makeup on their snarling faces, and costumes made to resemble straitjackets and restraints with the words “Psych Ward” on them.”

News and pictures of the performance upset a number of people, to which dance coach Erin Cotter responded, “The whole point is to get people pumped up and energized. Our intent had nothing to do with mental illness.”

So, the coach (and, presumably, the dancers) don’t get it. I can get my head around that; I mean, you can’t be sensitive in a situation if you don’t know sensitivity is needed.

No, what’s most deeply disturbing to me is the backlash against the mental health advocates and others who have raised their voices in concern. NBC Sports blogger Rich Chandler titled his piece about the incident “You crazy! Mental health advocates in uproar over high school dance team’s ‘psych ward’ routine.” The most telling line in his article is, “[t]eaching our children to back down under pressure is not cool.”

So, we shouldn’t back down under pressure on principle. To hell with the source or causes of the pressure.  To hell with being sensitive because we strive to be people who act with integrity and kindness. One memorable commentator on this article said, “Political correctness has destroyed America.” Ahh, so that’s the problem!

Most people think they know what mental illness looks like — that people with it look “crazy,” like those dancers looked. That we all have wild hair and mumble to ourselves and, if we’re not in mental institutions, we should be. That’s how stereotyping works; we don’t know it when we’re doing it because it feels true, and even if it’s not true, we think it doesn’t matter; that it’s no big deal.

People with mental illness are more similar than different to people without mental illnesses. Some are profoundly ill; many more are moderately or mildly ill. We are in hospitals, yes, and in prisons and on the streets, and also at your church and in your schools, standing behind you in line at the grocery and sitting in the office next door to yours at work.

I’d like to think that most of us are smart enough to laugh and have a good time and entertain each other without hurting others in the process.

Yes, I really am that sensitive. Every civil rights movement started with a small group of sensitive people who were willing to stand up and say enough is enough.

Just this once, I will reel in my verbosity because I want you to go read a wonderful piece over at my friend Chrisa’s blog, The Mindstorm: Raising a Mentally Ill Child. She has a guest post up by Erika, a fourteen-year-old who describes far more eloquently than I ever could why this matters.

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26 comments to More Similar Than Different

  • Superkitty

    Erika has hit the nail on the head – if it was cancer, the reactions would have been very different. But people are so blase about mental illness, and I still have trouble wrapping my head around that sometimes. It’s been so profoundly life-changing to me – how can it be the punchline of a joke to anyone else?

  • Chrisa Hickey

    Adrienne, thank you!!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jen is Always Sick, Adrienne Jones. Adrienne Jones said: No wonder so many are reluctant to disclose a mental health diagnosis when making fun of MI is so common! #mhsm […]

  • Fantastic post, Adrienne.

    Just now, a couple of hours post reading it, I saw a flash mob dance video created by a local high school and elementary school. It kind of put the whole dance thing, and teaching kids to find meaningful themes to explore … I hope you don’t mind my sharing it here. After reading this and Erika’s post, and having my mother ejected from an ICU direct to home because she is “difficult” but apparently NOT mentally ill … this video totally made me cry …

  • Liz

    It was refreshing to read the comments at the end of this article. So many people spoke up against this event, and opened up about their own experiences with mental illness. If there is a positive to be taken from the performance it is that it provides a point of discussion, which will lead to more awareness of the issue.

  • Imagine substituting Brain Disease for mental illness. My sister has a brain disease and is in the hospital. Meals, carpools, support systems come out of the woodwork. Mentally ill? She is shunned. This is wrong. Can’t read erika’s post right now. Just can’t.

    • You’re absolutely right. Most of the terms we use to refer to mental illness are loaded with connotations far beyond “illnesses of thinking and/or feeling.” That’s the fundamental issue.

  • Meg

    My son has been in a psych. hospital twice in his life (he’s 13). He will most likely stay in one again in his lifetime due to the nature of his illness. I asked him if he would have been offended by that routine and he said no, not at all. I, as his parent, am not offended by it. It was just for entertainment. We teach him to look at the world lightly when possible. Life is short.

    • Meg, this isn’t really about one dance. The problem is that this is emblematic is a much broader issue.

      I think the best analogy is to performances in black face. Just because that doesn’t bother every person (and perhaps not every AA person, though I have no way of knowing that), it doesn’t make it OK.

  • Meg

    I understand your point. The routine was not in good taste. My point to myself and to my son (and my job as I see it is not to change the world but to raise a son with mental illness that is prepared to deal with and live successfully in the world we live in) is that there are always going to be individuals and groups of people that will offend you. Period. No matter what the issue. If it is not this, then it will be something else [and he sees this every day as we live in the South and about a good quarter of the people here are offensive on a daily basis on some issue or another. The South is not terribly progressive and we deal with this kind of stuff regularly – be it on race, nationality, disability, gender, whatever]. If he gets caught up in every social issue that bothers him or offends him or lets every person who makes a nasty comment to him or anyone else get to him, he will want to hang himself. And that would be the saddest tragedy of all.

    I want him to be happy. And it is my job to teach him how to do that. The rest of the world can do what they want.

  • Erika

    Superkitty: I agree. Mental Illness is not a joke to those who suffer from it. It’s a nightmarish, psychic roller-coaster that is impossible to get off of by will or choice alone. The fact that people make fun of it, still – that is wrong.

    karen tsang: Isn’t it amazing how people can simply dismiss it? Bury their heads in the sand? That was a horrid thing that doctor did. Much love to both you and your mom.

    That video sent shivers up my spine; in a really, really good way. It’s always good to see the beautiful along with the ugly.

    Liz: That is my hope, too. Not to attach anyone, as some have suggested; but to talk. Talk about something that many people wish just wasn’t there.

    Kathykate: Much love to your family and you. You are so right, too. Essentially, if you replace mental illness with anything – brain disease, cancer, even cognitive disability – other peoples’ reactions change ten fold.

    Meg: Though I disagree with you (cancer used to be treated the same way – if that can change, this can), I believe that this is just a difference in personality. You say that getting involved in the stigma and politics of the world would be a threat to his stability. Understandable. Completely understandable. I’m the opposite, though. If I stand by and stay quiet, or not let if impact me – that is what will leave me in despair. Advocacy runs through my blood. One is not better or worse – just different.
    (Stigma against mental illness isn’t the only thing I face. I’m also bisexual, androgynous [emotionally – I don’t have the money to dress accordingly], pagan, and female).

    As Adrienne said, though, this still isn’t OK.

    I hope your son is doing well.

    Adrienne: THANK YOU! I have been reading your blog for months (though, I only commented once – on your, “If It Was Cancer…” post). Thank you for posting it; it means a lot.

  • It just shows that many people still think mental illness is funny. A routine like that is shameful, but what’s worse? Did none of the girls’ parents find the act and the costumes to be in poor taste? None of them took the opportunity to teach their children about respect and sensitivity?

  • I agree with you 100% and couldn’t have said it any better myself. Such a shame that we have to fight through all of this stigma…such. A. Shame.

  • Erika

    The Sweetest: Not that I can tell. The reporter from The Capital Times who broke the story has actually been harassed and insulted by the parents. If I recall, one of their comments was, “Well, you’re damaging MY kid’s mental health.” Though I can understand that (this can’t be entirely easy for those girls to deal with: they are just kids, who thought what they were doing was bold), the parents’ complete blindness to what they are enabling astounds me. The teenagers here are not at fault. It is the adults – coach, school, district, parents, and the NBC reporter who condoned it – that I believe are at fault.

    Kimberly: A shame, indeed. And for what?

    This wasn’t a good way to stand out. Standing out would have been an anti-bullying routine, a tribute to those who struggle with mental illness or such.

  • I hadn’t seen this routine … and I rarely watch / read news unless something is going on that I feel a need to be updated on. But I think it is terribly sad that the teacher would find it okay to teach students that it is okay to belittle, make fun, mimic, look down on, etc … any human being in pain! That is NOT okay! We are raising a generation of entitlement addicted brats (don’t hate me … I KNOW there are notable exceptions and I pray that THEY will be the world changers) and teaching them to disrespect their fellow man is NOT going to help the situation!

  • I wasn’t keen enough to track and down and watch the video, but I could see enough from the photo on the La Cross Tribune website. Seems beguiling to me really… I wonder how many of the dancers will cringe at this in years to come?

  • Lynette Levine

    If I stand by and stay quiet, or not let if impact me – that is what will leave me in despair. And it is my job to teach him how to do that. It was refreshing to read the comments at the end of this article. I have been reading your blog for months (though, I only commented once – on your, “If It Was Cancer…” post).

  • Erika,

    I have to agree with you that people who make fun of mental illness are not very nice at all.

    Since mental illness is not the person’s own fault most of the time it is just not fair to joke about it.

    I agree that the video was very chilling but it was also touching.


  • I agree one hundred percent with Shontell and all others who decry the fact that mental illness is nothing to be made fun of. For that matter no disability deserves to be satirized or parodied. May be the kids learn it in due course of time.

  • Grace

    Hi, i know this probably won’t even be seen since this happened a couple years ago. But I was in my junior year of high school and on that dance team. I was a captain that year and the events that happened after we competed our “crazy” routine still break my heart. What’s funny is that that same year I was seeing a therapist because I have depression, anxiety, and other mental health related issues. This dance allowed me to get all of those confused feelings out and HELPED me. But all of the negative comments that followed sent me into one of the worst depressions of my life. Our coach NEVER deserved some of the hate that she received, she’s like family to me and seeing all the grief that it caused her just kills me. I went home every day and cried for months following the articles that came out about us being offensive or targeting mentally ill people. People who find negativity in dance disgust me. Yeah, this could have been a great learning experience if the people who were offended in the first place would have come and talked to us directly, but instead they went and complained to the media. Dance is one of the only reasons I stay sane (literally). But thanks for the all of the frustration you’ve cause me anyways, because I put all of that frustration into my senior year on the team and we won state, and nothing has ever felt more rewarding in my life. I’m sure most people don’t even remember this happening. So next time, instead of complaining to a newspaper or something just discuss your opinion with the person who it directly affects, it’ll save you both a lot of trouble. Don’t bother commenting anything back if you read this, I plan on staying far away from all of these crazy articles for the rest of my life.

  • […] know them to be people? They are not the monsters in the movies or the villains in TV shows or amusing pop-culture characters but […]

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