Stop the Stigma

Mental Illness Stigma Isn’t Funny

Mental illness stigma as a comedy routine?  Yeah, so not funny. - cartoon of a pig  with the line "go pig or go home"

As an official Crazy Person, I’m all for laughing at ourselves. It makes the hard stuff a little bit easier. But when other people use stigma as an excuse to laugh at us, that makes this Crazy Person very unimpressed, because stigma isn’t funny.

Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, seems to do a pretty good job of picking up on mental health stories; not long ago they’d written about a man with bipolar disorder who was unceremoniously turfed from an ER after going in for severe pain. I recently saw a story on CBC News about Jessica Richardson, a woman in the Canadian province of New Brunswick who’d made a complaint about her psychiatrist. She has a diagnosis of PTSD, and she was concerned about how her psychiatrist was handling her treatment, particularly with regards to medications.

She submitted a complaint to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick. In response, she received a dismissive email from the College registrar, Ed Schollenberg. The CBC article included these excerpts from that response:

Patients often are unhappy with their psychiatrists. Probably because they are unhappy about everything I guess.

Just get in his face politely. And get back to me if there remains a problem.

Ms. Richardson responded, calling his email “unprofessional.” Mr. Schollenberg then apologized, saying his email was a “weak attempt at humour.”

To give a bit of extra background, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick is the regulatory body for doctors in the province that’s responsible for licensing and ensuring doctors are meeting their professional practice standards. The registrar runs the show, so that’s a very powerful position, meaning this kind of amateur hour should not be happening.

“Patients often are unhappy with their psychiatrists.” Is that true? Maybe. Even if it is, why is that a reason to dismiss the patient perspective? Why doesn’t that get turned around to question whether there are too many asshole psychiatrists? I would say that’s as least as likely as there being too many whiny patients.

“Probably because they are unhappy about everything I guess.” Presumably this is his best in show for comedy routine. Could he not have come up with anything a little more original? Perhaps “probably because they’re too busy going on a psycho killer shooting spree?” Or maybe this is a little toxic positivity shining through. If you can’t be happy, you must be crazy!

“Just get in his face politely.” Although watch out, get it wrong and you could be getting a one-way ticket to the loony bin.

Health care can do better. People with their amateur comedian head up their ass should not be in a position where they can make decisions about what happens with patient complaints. Mental illness stigma isn’t funny. We may be crazy, but we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, and what we have to say matters.

Mental illness: Stop the stigma - graphic of face and megaphone with the words "speak up"

You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

A Brief History of Stigma: coming soon from Mental Health @ Home Books

35 thoughts on “Mental Illness Stigma Isn’t Funny”

  1. Working in the mental health field you’d think people in that field would be more empathetic but I’ve had my boss say well he’s bipolar so he won’t change or she’ll spend all her money because she’s bipolar. Wtf stereotypes and stigma is everywhere

  2. Oh no, this is upsetting. I was surprised when I got to the part about how it was a weak attempt at humor! I read it literally and didn’t get the joke at all!! And then I was like, oh, he was trying to be funny…? Huh. [Shakes head in confusion.] That fell flatter than a pancake that got steamrollered.

    Well, yeah, I like to joke about my mental illness. You know I’m half-deaf and schizophrenic, so I often have to ask the voices to speak up. [Rimshot.] (Ohhh, groan. Really, Meg?) But it seems funny when it’s coming from someone who’s living it, versus someone who’s being cruel and patronizing.

    And I can totally assure you that there are, in fact, many many many many bad pschiatrists out there. They’re hiding behind an umbrella of, “Well, you can’t believe my patients’ complaints. They’re crazy!” and that’s really horrible. I’ve had the walking ego psychiatrists too many times, and I feel grateful every day that my mom somehow found me Dr. Phlegm. I’m one of the lucky ones to have gotten such good care from him since 2005. He’s not a walking ego–he’s a regular person.

    I hope the person who complained seeks out a better psychiatrist and uses her own discernment about meds!! [Shaking my head in disgust at her quack doctor.]

    1. Yeah, making fun of ourselves – good. People in positions of power making fun of the crazies – not so good. Those egos can definitely get in the way.

  3. More likely, it was his weak attempt at explaining away his condescending, dismissive statement by trying to pin it on his poor sense of humor. Kinda like when somebody says something that they know will be hurtful, and then waits till after they get the reaction they were expecting to say, “I was only joking.”

  4. At least twenty years ago I stopped going to a GP because they left my door open and a call came in that a mentally ill patient was in the ER begging for my doctor’s help. I heard my doctor say “I told them not to call me any more” then laughing said “Hey, tell them to call Dr. Kevorkian” at which point all the doctors and nurses in the hall erupted with laughter. I totally lost it. When he came in to my room, I let him have it and stormed out. I laugh at myself, my new doctor and I laugh at me, especially when it is the only way I can get through it but this other “doctor”, I hope he rots.

  5. Stigma and blame/shame isn’t new for those of us dealing with mental illness. I suppose we ought to feel grateful the ‘man’ isn’t prescribing Thorazine and giving us EST in response to our request for equal treatment with everyone else. That idiot making the joke is just that, an idiot. That wasn’t funny at all. The twerp cited by one of your other commentors with the Kevorkian ‘joke’ wasn’t funny. He’d have been lucky to get out of my reach with his skin intact. Mentally ill who advocate for their own well being and medical treatment on an equal footing with everyone else are expected to have a thicker skin than everyone else. I doubt our ‘group’ will ever see equal treatment. Because many (if not most) general practitioners don’t see our illness as ‘real’ and therefore feel free to dismiss it. The ones who are supposed to be mental health doctors and health care workers have no excuse. Those people are our last hope for treatment, so why make light of any of it? That idiot from the CBC (I think it was) who joked around deserves every bit of censure the offended can drum up. To me he’s lucky to hold on to his job.

    1. It’s easy for GPs to dismiss us, especially when they don’t want to acknowledge their own lack of skill in dealing with mental illness. And I agree, those who specialize in psych have no excuse.

  6. It was a VERY weak attempt at humour, good thing that he admitted that at least. I didn’t even get that it was supposed to be humour, it sounded so stupid it made me feel slightly surreal that someone would write such a thing in a professional email. It sounds as if it’s how it was supposed to be – “Psychiatrists are people with whom their patients are often unhappy, oh well, that’s just how the world works, deal with it, you’re never happy anyway”. – I hope she can find someone who will deal with the situation properly.

  7. I totally agree Ashley. The stigma of mental health hurts. it cuts like a knife when it comes from those who should know better, especially the health care system
    My pet peeve when it comes to stigma is, the media when they cover a mass shooting. The first thing out of their mouths is, the shooter is probably bi-polar. It makes me almost throw something at the television.

  8. The way we see it, the person being appealed to for help (whether it’s head of psychiatric board or a customer service rep) can be so used to hearing concerns/complaints that they sometimes forget that the person contacting them is not the other 100, 200, or 50,000 people they have heard from before.

    They may be tired of hearing “complaints,” so they get frustrated, without realizing this is your first time ever contacting them. They confuse you with everyone else.

    It’s a lack of empathy, which we can understand if your job is to hear complaints/problems a lot. That sounds so draining! Self-care is probably critical if you are in a position to hear other’s frustrations on a regular basis.

    Without self-care, without replenishing your empathy, you could wind up doing what this doctor did. The patient then has unmet needs to feel heard, to be supported, to have a shared reality or partnership. That could create anger, sadness, and if one is already struggling mentally, then the response could feel hopeless.

  9. What’s terrible to think about is stories like these silencing or scaring away people who were thinking about getting help. There can be a place for humor when it comes to mental illnesses. But in a professional setting those moments should not be prominent or used as a way to dismiss what someone is saying or reeling.

  10. Couldn’t agree more. One psychiatrist once told me how intelligent people should be having more babies and stupid people should be having less. Not exactly about mental health, but still struck me as inappropriate to say to a patient.

  11. His response is disturbing, inappropriate and unempathetic.

    I came close to starting an undergraduate degree in counselling a few years ago. However, I had (and still have a concern) – I’ve had very mixed experiences with counsellors personally. Some of them were distinctly unhelpful. I brought up this concern with one of the lecturers who would have been responsible for teaching me, had I gone ahead with this degree course.

    His response was disappointing and was a big factor in me deciding not to try to become a counsellor myself. Essentially, he seemed to be saying that qualified counsellors can do no wrong – implying that any dissatisfaction on my part must be my own fault, not the counsellor’s.

    I didn’t want to be taught by someone who couldn’t admit that sometimes counsellors get things wrong and there’s always room for improvement.

    That kind of defensive reaction seems all-too-common unfortunately. And it’s by no means limited to counselling or the mental health field either.


    1. Yikes. Qualifications ensure a basic level of knowledge, but there’s plenty of room for some people to be useless, just like in any other field. Someone who denies that would definitely send me running in the opposite direction too.

  12. I’ve been reflecting further on this. The comedian Ricky Gervais hates it when people try to dictate to others about what is, or is not, funny. He makes a logical and persuasive argument. He says that everyone has their “one thing” which they don’t find funny. Ricky’s argument is that we can (and should) make jokes about absolutely anything and everything.

    So, I find myself on the fence a bit here. When I think about the example you describe in this post, it seems the man’s response was inappropriate and unfunny.

    But, in the right context, I can imagine jokes about mental health actually being funny. For example, I would definitely be interested to see/hear comedy routines about mental health issues which are written by intelligent comedians who have personal experience and a deep understanding of mental health. Often, comedy is a great way to indirectly improve people’s empathy and understanding of certain things.

    Generally, I find Ricky Gervais’ comedy is very good at demonstrating a genuine understanding of human suffering. For example, I really enjoyed his series Derek (about a mentally disabled man), and also his After Life series, which tackles the tricky subject of the death of of a partner, in a humane, relateable, sensitive and very funny way.

    1. Yeah, this particular dude was just being an ass. Ruby Wax is someone who does the crazy comedy thing well. I think that when it comes to people who are disadvantaged because of disability, race, etc, the potential for comedy is in the stereotypes rather than the characteristics. It’s a fine distinction, but if you’re making fun of stereotypes, you’re making fun of the society that creates them rather than the people who are subjected to them.

  13. My psychiatrist once told me I probably “got a lot of standup material” off of being in his waiting room for hours while didn’t bother to show up on time. Now, in the pre-pandemic days I used to do *improv*, not *stand up.* But, leaving that aside…I *did* get a lot of material. (For my blog at least.) From how awful *he* was. Not from his patients, as he was implying…

  14. Nicely said Ashley….
    As an official and diagnised crazy person here I also can say I do not like stigma…

    And just because our heads may not be always in the correct place….it doesn’t mean our hearts are not.

    The same cannot be said of many who are supposed to treat us with empathy, understanding and compassion.

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