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Society says freak show must go on

  • 29 September 2014

It is a regrettable reality of human nature that witnessing the suffering and anguish of particular individuals can be a source of entertainment for the rest of us. Making fun of mental illness has a long history that unfortunately continues to the present day. 

This was highlighted in the past week in the reporting of plans of the Royal Agricultural Society of WA to offer an amusement at this year’s Perth Royal Show based on the notorious Bethlem Sanatorium in London, commonly known as Bedlam.

Bethlem was known for its cruel treatment of mental illness patients as far back as the 13th century. Today it provides specialist care for more than 450,000 sufferers a year, and seeks to avoid the deliberate stigmatisation that was for so long part of its method of operation. The Perth Show attraction was to feature actors posing as disturbed psychiatric patients from centuries ago, when they were displayed as a public spectacle.

The chief executive of the trust that runs Bethlem, Dr Matthew Patrick, said in an open letter that the attraction would ‘foster discrimination and promote the perception of “scary mental health patients” which [would] undoubtedly deter people from seeking the help they need’. 

Mental health advocates criticised the Perth Show’s reinforcement of negative and inaccurate stereotypes. SANE Australia’s Jack Heath said: ‘We had thought that these sorts of attitudes or making jokes about these sorts of things had been put to bed, you know, 10 - 20 years ago, so it’s a great surprise to us.’

Mental Health Australia CEO Frank Quinlan said he was most concerned by the Agricultural Society’s ‘perpetuating the sort of idea that mental illness is something abhorrent and something that affects others and something that we should be frightened of.’

In reality, he said, mental health is something we are all close to. ‘One in five Australians experience a mental illness every year.’

The Agricultural Society has responded to the criticism by merely modifying the attraction, removing all references to mental health. However it remains to be seen whether the revised theme of ‘the outbreak of a deadly contagion’ represents much of an improvement. 

Judging from what we know, it is still a something of a freak show, stigmatising individuals and making fun of their suffering. If we ask ourselves how we should approach contagion, we might urge the physical isolation of those carrying the ebola virus, for example. But not their stigmatisation. The plight of