Knott’s Scary Farm VR attraction serves as a lesson in the portrayal of mental illness, but the social media response is far scarier than the attraction. Although I’m still fairly new to this career, I have clocked over 6,000 hours at what some people may call a ‘job’. I am not, however, new to mental illness. This career path is something I like to think of more as a mission. My personal and professional endeavor to make going into a behavioral unit as normal and accepted as going in to any other unit of a hospital will be life-long.
Last night I crawled into bed after spending fourteen hours working in an inpatient behavioral health unit. I made the mistake of picking up my laptop and browsing my Facebook feed. Reading through the trending topics of the day, Knott’s Scary Farm caught my attention so I clicked.
I was appalled. Saddened. Mostly disgusted in some of the hurtful and uninformed comments from the keyboard warriors of America.
Knott’s Berry Farm opened a Halloween attraction called Fear VR:5150. The 5150 comes from a code police officers use when an individual is a suspected to be a harm to themselves or others due to mental health concerns. As part of the 4-minute attraction, people are strapped into a wheelchair and, through a virtual reality headset, experience a “psych ward” with a missing patient.
To those living with or supporting loved ones with mental illness, or those working in this field, the inappropriateness of this attraction is obvious.
To others, the advocates are the pins popping the fun balloons.
Social media has given a new platform to discussion. The somewhat anonymity seems to give people more power to use their words. While some use this opportunity to advocate, empower, and raise awareness, others use it to be cruel, show their lack of empathy, and flaunt ignorance.
As I blog, 6,7 K people are making this a trending topic. The Knott’s Scary Farm attraction isn’t about a bunch of people pissed off about having their Halloween fun cancelled. It isn’t about ‘social justice whackos’ being ‘too sensitive’.
A Lesson in Mental Health
Knott’s Scary Farm shut this attraction down the same week police fatally shot an unarmed man experiencing a mental health crisis after his sister called for them to help.
Raccoon TV calls the Fear VR “pure fiction” but this is not entirely correct. Whatever circumstances this man was in, whatever diagnosis he had was certainly not his fictional world. This was his everyday life. We tell our patients when they are in crisis to call for help.
This man’s “help” came in the form of a bullet. His “pure fiction” was not a fun 4-minute attraction at Knott’s Scary Farm.
This is only one man. One example. Before you accuse the mental health advocates of being overly sensitive, or fun-crushing assholes, do a fact check to see how many officer-involved fatalities are in response to someone with mental illness.
Watch an Elyn Saks TED Talk to get a not-so-fictional glimpse into the reality of mental illness.
If we continue to stigmatize mental illness in this way, we are going to continue seeing unnecessary fatalities.
If people with mental illness don’t ask for help, they won’t get the treatment they need. Without the treatment they need, they cannot live their life to their greatest potential. Mental illness is manageable.
We have come a long way in mental healthcare. Unfortunately, when I think we’re making a few steps forward, a trending topic reminds me we have a long way to go.
The Knott’s Scary Farm attraction does not offend me — it scares me. It scares me because people actually believe someone with a mental illness is someone to fear.
This Halloween, go to a corn maze and have people dressed up like crows jump out at you. Dress up like Willy Wonka and hand out candy to kids. Or, if fear is your thing, dress up like a cancer cell — something that, unlike a behavioral health hospital, is actually horrific and terrifying.