Laughing at mental illness

The Melbourne writer Isabella Fels often uses whimsy in telling of her experience of living independently with mental illness. In her article for Eureka Street this week, she writes about her unsuccessful attempt to learn to drive. 

She gently mocks what she describes as her instructor’s failure to understand her mental illness in a way that suggests it is as ham-fisted as her own efforts to master the fundamentals of driving a car. 

I feel for Isabella because she would fail to grasp a range of life skills due to her instructors’ inadequacies  – rather than her own. But the truth is that the instructors are frequently not up to the job because they do not have the preparation and resources necessary for dealing with people with special needs.

That is one of the conclusions of an author featured on yesterday’s NPR Fresh Air podcast. Her name is Alisa Roth, and she visited a range of prisons in the US to research her recently published book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness.

In framing the incarceration and treatment of the mentally ill as the ‘next civil rights issue’, she has some sympathy for the much maligned corrections officers. 

‘They’re forced to play this dual role of caretaker and enforcer but, more complicated than that, is the fact that they really don't have the training ... to, say, identify schizophrenia versus depression.’

We can point the finger at the justice system. But there’s another book to be written about how our entertainment and media industries treat mental illness. They have an important role in normalisation efforts but they can shamelessly exploit mental illness for its perceived entertainment value.

I remember the controversy generated four years ago when the Perth Show was forced to cancel one of its amusements following a public outcry.

It was a recreation of London’s Bedlam psychiatric hospital where, in the 16th century, they raised funds by allowing members of the public to pay to visit so they could ridicule and taunt the residents.

I was reminded of this last week when a Prime7 regional TV news bulletin referred to the now closed Mayday Hills mental health facility at Beechworth in north-east Victoria as a former ‘lunatic asylum’. 

The new owners of the historic property have established a holiday park with a horror amusement aspect that includes the house featured in the 1998 Australian comedy film The Castle

This is how a local tourist website promotes Mayday Hills:

‘Evening Ghost Tours will take you through the deserted buildings, where your guide will share stories and myths of patients of likes of James Kelly, uncle of the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly and Ida Pender the wife of gangster Squizzy Taylor.’

An American website called The Hauntist has an entry on the ‘Beechworth Lunatic Asylum’ claiming that ‘a quick search for haunted locations throughout the world will consistently place Beechworth Lunatic Asylum at the top of the list.’

Why does this sacred ground have to be repurposed in such a bizarre and offensive manner? I had a cousin who was periodically a resident at Mayday Hills in the 1970s. Was she a ‘lunatic’ in the ‘asylum’? 

The juxtaposition of mental illness and humour is a delicate undertaking. Andrew Denton mastered it back in the 1990s. Comedians such as Hannah Gadsby have taken it to new heights more recently. And Isabella Fels does it in her writing for Eureka Street. But the new Mayday Hills and its promoters take us back to a time of darkness and inhumanity.