Speaking Up to Address the Stigma: Challenging The FaceBook Mental Health “Game”

I am a 40-something guy. Included in my friends on Facebook are folks that I have not seen since my high school years. Maybe you have some friends like that too. I like their life milestones and updates on their children. I like hearing stories about their own parents – many of whom I have not seen in over two decades. And I also like that they are a decent barometer of how the general public thinks about issues, given my day to day is entrenched in issues like homelessness, addiction, mental health, trauma, and family breakdown.

Recently, a FaceBook “game” was introduced by one of these high school pals. I have no doubt this is the sort of thing that may have made its rounds in your friend circles on FaceBook too. It goes like this:

You’re in a mental hospital. Use the first 7 people on your tag list in order..no cheating! 

Your roommate: 

Person licking windows: 
Person helping your escape: 
The doctor: 
Person running around naked: 
Person yelling nonsense: 
Person you went crazy with: 

A clean copy for you to fill out is in the comments..let’s see if yours is as true and funny as mine!

And it made my heart sink and angered me at the same time. I don’t hide the fact that I live with mental illness. Goodness knows I have found things to laugh at in my own recovery journey. But that is ME having a laugh at MY mental health. I suspect there are also peer groups that could appropriately share their experiences and chuckles with each other. BUT, it doesn’t reinforce stereotypes nor find delight in the compromised wellness of others. I mean really…person licking windows? Running around naked? The person you went crazy with? That escape is necessary rather than achieving important assistance? (If only people knew how difficult it was in most cities for someone to get admitted for care when their mental health is unwell.)

No doubt some folks are naive when it comes to mental health. Very few folks ever set foot in a mental health hospital or the psychiatric wing of a hospital. Very few very visit a mental health clubhouse or peer support group. Very few ever visit supportive housing for people that live with serious and persistent mental illness. Very few have ever spent significant time doing street outreach or being in a shelter where the shortcomings of mental health systems are so blatant.

Does that condone efforts to make fun of mental illness? No.

So, I pointed out that maybe finding jokes in this type of FaceBook game was insensitive and poor taste. What I encountered wasn’t a response that was considerate of this point of view, but rather, a pushback that I was too easily offended.

And I think that is a problem. It speaks to the ongoing efforts needed to get mental health out of the shadows and into the light, and to address stigma head on. Can you imagine the outrage if there was a FaceBook game that went something like “You’re in the barracks of the plantation” or “You’re on the train to Auschwitz” or “You’re in the Residential School”. Of course that would be completely unacceptable.

It is also unacceptable to make it more difficult for anyone already struggling to come to grips with their mental health or share their mental health with others if there is entertainment that takes delight in reinforcing stereotypes, or mocking people for behaviours that may stem from mental illness.

But this cannot just be people like me that live with mental illness that speak up and say that finding humour in games like this is offensive. It requires everyone to have a sensible discussion to point out that mocking people for their mental illness is not different that mocking people if they have cancer or kidney disease or a heart condition. Sickness is not comedy.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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