Thursday, September 25, 2014

An open letter to the 2014 Perth Royal Show

Dear Royal Agricultural Society of WA,

I have enjoyed going to the Royal Show for as long as I can remember. I have such amazing memories of getting up early, heading to the bank to withdraw the money we had saved all year in those Dolomite accounts, and making our way in. Before the train, we'd park in the same person's yard every year - we never knew their name and they never knew ours, but each year we'd drive in, pay our money and say hello. The first time I didn't go to the show, I was ten - it was literally the first year since I was born that I had missed it - I was in Disneyland at the time and I was DISAPPOINTED that I wasn't at the Show. Only for a minute, but still.

Show bags full of chocolate and stupid inflatable things, the baby animal nursery, fairy floss, the giant slide, the sheep dogs, the show animals, staying up sooooo far past bed time to watch the fireworks and so much more. Ah, sugar coated bliss.

But this year, I'm really disappointed in you.

You were going to have a ride this year called "Bethlem Sanatorium" that depicted an open ward with 20 actors pretending to be patients. The Bethlem Sanatorium was and is a real place - the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world (though now it goes by Bethlem Royal Hospital) and it was known for its cruel treatment of mentally ill patients in the distant past. In fact, one of the most disturbing facts was that Bethlem allowed the public to come and view the "bedlam" (which gets its name from the hospital) and the madness for themselves, making a mockery out of the suffering of the patients who were subjected to cruelty and violence on a daily basis. 

Now, keeping in mind that this is considered by many to be the most scandalous aspect of the history of this psychiatric facility, how on earth did you think it appropriate to approve it as a ride? And have it featured in the "Kids & Family" section of your website?

Have we not come anywhere between the 1400s and now? Are the mentally ill still a freak show? Roll up, roll up, come and see the crazies! Witness the insanity for yourself for just $15! Lunatics galore!

Then we can all point and laugh. Ha ha ha, isn't being sick just hilarious? How about next year you have a childrens cancer ward? We can all laugh at their bald heads! Oh I know, how about a few people with physical differences, too? Because not looking like a model is shameful and we need to make sure they know just how much we won't tolerate anything but beauty in our community.

The stigma surrounding mental illness remains extreme despite one in five Australians experiencing it. A 2006 study found that almost a quarter of people thought mental illness was caused by a personal weakness, and one in five would not tell anyone if they had depression.

The biggest killer of 15-44 year olds is suicide. Perhaps some of those deaths could be prevented if asking for help wasn't considered by some to be weak and shameful. If they didn't worry that they'd never get another job. If they didn't believe they would be ostracized by friends, family and the wider community. If it didn't make them feel like they were in a freak show.

I've been in a few psychiatric facilities in my time. My stays have ranged from a couple of days to a couple of months. I remember vividly the first time I went. I was petrified thanks to, in part, the way mental health facilities are portrayed in the movies. I expected "bedlam". I expected people walking around muttering to themselves. Screaming, crying and moaning coming from every room. Shared showers covered in grime and horrid nurses hovering over you.

But it was nothing like that. It looked more like a hotel, with my own private bedroom and bathroom. Most of the time I would be in the smokers courtyard talking to other patients. We would chain smoke, tell stories, support each other and laugh. The best therapy I ever had in those places took part in the courtyard. Being around people. People who understood you weren't feeling so great and wouldn't mind if you cried. In fact, they'd probably bring you a cuppa and offer to listen, then ten minutes later you're all smiling again.

I have met some amazing people during my times as an inpatient, and I'm still friends with quite a few of them to this day. Fabulous, hard working, interesting, smart, funny, articulate, caring, down to earth people. Who happen to have had mental health issues. Wanna drop by some time so you can point at us and laugh?

After the Bethlem Royal Hospital and other advocacy groups campaigned for you to pull the attraction you held a meeting. I left a message on your Facebook page:

I thought it was pretty respectful. Polite, even. But you hid it so only my friends could see it. You replied to the people asking about bunnies and stables but my comment was left to languish. From this I can only conclude that you couldn't care less about it. You didn't reply to my tweets either.

Then, this afternoon, when I heard that you had changed the ride I was relieved and thought you must have come to your senses. Hurrah! Common sense prevails and human decency can be relied upon once more... but then I read your statement. A classic fauxpology:
While the attraction was not designed to cause offense, "clearly some members of the public did not feel it was appropriate".
Oh please. Shifting the blame, much? Take some responsibility! You messed up by thinking charging people to walk around an attraction while actors pretended to have severe mental illnesses was just peachy.

I had been looking forward to introducing my kids to the Perth Royal Show this year, but not any more. Instead, I'll use my time to promote the messages of Mental Health Week which starts the day after the Show ends, and work to challenge the stigma.



If you need help call Lifeline on 13 11 14

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