Stigmatization By Another Dance Team

An anonymous poster alerted me to Chicago’s Robert Morris University dance team and their recent 8th place finish in a dance competition.  Their costumes?  You guessed it.  Straight jackets.  (Update 3/14/11: here’s the cached version of the story and picture, as it has dissappeared from the live site)

I can’t believe we’re seeing this again, particularly so close on the heels of the fallout from the Waunakee High School dance team performing a similar routine.  RMU Dance Team Coach Julie Haller is quoted as saying the team gave, “a very sharp performance.”  Sharp indeed.  The image of the team in straight jackets, blackened eyes and wild hair pierced right through  my heart.  Of the 10 young women on this team, statistically, at least one of them has suffered mental health issues in their lifetime.  At least two of their parents have.  Their third leading cause of death?  Suicide.  

I wrote the following email to Mr. Viollt RMU President, Coach Julie Haller and the two competitive dance coaches, Lindsay Parrish and Katie Burrows:

Dear Mr. Viollt, Ms. Haller, Ms. Parrish, and Ms. Burrows:

My name is Chrisa Hickey and I am a resident of the Chicagoland area, as well as a mother of three young adults, one of which is considering Robert Morris University for his degree when he completes his general education at our local community college.  I am writing to you regarding your recent dance team victory at Nationals, as described in the press release on the Robert Morris University website.  
First off, congratulations on the victory.  I’m sure these young women worked hard to make it to Nationals and to come in eighth in the nation.  I have a question, however, about the routine and the choice in costume in particular.  Why straight jackets?  Why wild, disheveled hair and blackened eyes?  Why a routine that, at best makes light of and, at worst pokes fun at the mentally ill?  When did it become ok in our society to satirize a serious national health concern for entertainment?  
I’d like to tell you a story about my middle son, Tim.  Tim is 16 years old.  Tim was always a little different than other kids.  It was hard to pinpoint just what was different, but there were signs all throughout his early childhood.  His pre-school offered speech therapy and chalked up his unusual and unprovoked rage and fleeing behavior to Autism. Testing by a Neuropsychologist and the school district added diagnoses of Expressive-Receptive Language DisorderSensory Integration Disorder, and Developmental Delay. 

Speech therapy gave way to a full-time special education class, which gave way to the first of five therapeutic day schools, first for Autism, but after we engaged a child psychologist and, at her recommendation, a child psychiatrist, schools for children with emotional disturbances. But it wasn’t until age 11 after weeks of uncontrollable rage, when his psychologist sat me down and gently explained that my child was psychotic and needed to be hospitalized, did I realize what she’d been trying to soft-shoe to me for nearly a year. Tim did not have an Autism Spectrum Disorder. He had a mental illness and needed hospitalization and, very likely, medication. As I sat, stunned, she gently told me, “he will likely be hospitalized several times.” I brushed that notion off at the time. But between that first hospitalization March 2006 and June 2009 there would be 11 more, accompanied by 27 different med combinations, daily therapy, and refinement of his diagnosis from Bipolar NOS, to Bipolar 1 with psychotic features to Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar subtype. Tim was actively psychotic – hearing voices, plagued by delusions – and alternately manic and depressed for much of that time, if not all of his life. It was just much more noticeable since his speech had gotten to the point where he could explain what was going on in his head.

In June 2009 Tim was granted an Individual Care Grant from the state of Illinois, a unique state program that provides funds for intense community based or residential services for severely mentally ill children. It was a month before his 15th birthday and, after years of talk of suicide (and one attempt) alternating with violent, destructive rage, we decided he needed this type of treatment. Either my husband or I had been with him (except for the 5 hours a day he was in school, when he went to school) every hour of every day since he was four. We were all exhausted. Our oldest had spent as much time out of the house as possible, and our daughter mostly hid in her room, understandably diagnosed with PTSD in 2009.

Tim went to residential treatment in August 2009, and he resides there today. Through intense treatment, a very predictable and rigid schedule, and Clozaril (we had several psychiatrists, including the head of pediatric psychiatry for a large hospital in the Chicago area tell us we were down to that or ECT), Tim is pretty stable today. His voices are never gone, but he has learned how to block them out (the meds help). He does cycle, as regular as a calendar, experiencing psychosis and depression in mid to late winter, and psychosis and mania mid fall, yearly for the past three years running. He is still plagued by anxiety that feeds his psychosis, but his personality is starting to show again. Tim will most likely never be independent, and we understand and are preparing for that. But he can and will have a life he can enjoy and be proud of, thanks to the difficult choices we’ve made today.

Now imagine Tim sitting and watching your dance team perform their routine, alongside his brother, a soon-to-be RMU student.  
1 in every 10 persons in the US suffers from a mental health condition, including teens and young adults.  But tragically, less than 40% of the teens and young adults that need mental health treatment ever receive it.  And the primary reason for that is the stigma associated with having a mental illness.  How many people saw your routine?  How many of them are friends and family of you and the dance team?  And how many of them do you think would tell you how hurtful and stigmatizing the routine was?  I can tell you how many would tell you – none.  
Now let me ask  you one more question.  Would you have done a routine dressed as the stereotype of homeless persons?  In black-face?  As cognitively disabled persons?  No.  Of course you wouldn’t.  Because it’s insensitive to poke fun at the homeless, different races, and persons with mental disabilities.  It’s also not ok to perpetuate the false stigma that persons with mental illness are dangerous, disheveled, and bizarre.  Because, statistically, one of the members of your dance team is or will be one of them.  
I have posted this letter on my blog as well.  I hope to hear from you so you can understand my point of view.  I’d also encourage you to read the open letter to Waunakee High School coach Erin Cotter on my blog, written by a 15 year old girl with a mental illness, written after they performed a routine similar to yours.  The Principal of Waunakee High School has responded by increasing mental health education at WHS.  I hope RMU and, specifically your dance team, will do the same.

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  • Schwandy (Stephanie) March 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    That is a really well thought out letter. I hope they do the right thing and respond with an apology.
    I also hope that we stop seeing these types of stereotypes around the country because of letters, like the one you've written.

  • Amy Kiel March 11, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    You are brilliant, so eloquent with your words and your bravery is so inspirational. Thank you so much for raising your voice on behalf of us all. I will link to your post and post myself and do all that I can to promote this message and to support you as well.
    In Gratitude,

  • lcmc March 12, 2011 at 1:42 am

    thank you so much!

  • Alicia C. Staley (@stales) March 12, 2011 at 3:12 am

    This is unreal! I cannot believe another school would do this. They can't claim they didn't hear about Waunakee. Thank you for covering this. I'm hoping they respond to you. Thank you for sharing your story with all of us, you are amazing.

  • Jacynta March 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    I have little knowledge in what's going on here, but I think this article may interest you.

    If they were just poking fun at mental health, or using it to get ahead, then good on you for writing that letter. They have no right to be offensive in that manner and it is great that you're sticking up for something that you believe in. But if they were actually trying to get a point across, like the people in the article I linked you to, then maybe they're not as inconsiderate as you think.

  • Chrisa March 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Seriously? A link from Cracked to make your point? Cracked, the less funny, cruder red headed step brother of Mad Magazine?

  • picklesprincess March 13, 2011 at 12:50 am

    I hope none of the members of this dance team are psych, social work, education, child development, nursing, or pre-med students. As an adjunct instructor I can't help but question the academics at a college/university which would back such a presentation.

  • Jacynta March 13, 2011 at 12:50 am

    I'm sorry if I offended you. If I'd known you had such a low opinion of that website then I would have found a more appropriate source. It's not the entertainment of the article that I'm using here, it's the actual idea behind the information. Badmouthing Cracked doesn't make that idea hold any less true.

    I can understand how this performance (or the idea of this performance) could be seen as upsetting to someone in your position. I don't think mental health is something that we should make light of. But I just want you to consider the idea that maybe they didn't intend what you're thinking they did. You don't know any better than I do what the message behind that dance was. Art is like that in a lot of ways, it's hard to interpret.

    Being quick to judge something as one thing because it seems like that on the surface can lead to misunderstanding. They may well be in the wrong here (and if they are, they very much deserve your well thought out email), but who says the next person, or group, that you feel this way about will be?

    I'm not poking fun at you, I'm not attacking you. I just want you to think.

  • Chrisa March 13, 2011 at 12:55 am

    I'm not offended. I just grew up with Cracked being not known for being particularly funny. And the article referenced things that were at minimum, a decade old.

    Would you still think it was art if they were all dressed up as persons with Down's Syndrome? Or elderly dementia patients? Or kids with Autism?

    I guess the big thing is that I don't see high school and college dance/cheer teams as "art". Their press release – which is, by the way, where the picture came from – did not say their performance was a satire of the mental health system in America. It said they did a "straight-jacketed routine."

    I did think. I think that they gave no thought as to who might be offended because the mentally ill in this country are, as the Senator from New Hampshire made crystal clear, consider "defective" – less than human.

  • Chrisa March 13, 2011 at 1:24 am

    Oh – and satire can still be offensive and insensitive. Prime example – search Twitter today for "pearl harbor japan earthquake" and see what I mean.

  • Jacynta March 13, 2011 at 1:25 am

    Alright, I get what you're saying there.

    Honestly, I don't know what I think about the original dance. I was offended at first too. I thought, "why would they use something like this as entertainment?" But then I stepped back and thought a little more about it.

    I still think it was risky, and that they should have thought long and hard about what they were doing before they did anything. I think that they might not have done the routine if they did. But who knows really? It is interesting that you're picking on the wording of the press release. It is relevant, I'm not saying it isn't. It's just not something I really though of. I did read it, by the way. Do you know who wrote the press release? Was it the dancers? The dance organisation? Wording is something that we should be aware of and you do make a good point, but I think knowing who wrote it is just as relevant. I do agree with you in that it is suggestive on inconsideration though.

    I see what you're saying there, but tying in an independant opinion and suggesting (in a round about manner), that the people involved in this dance feel the same is a little over the top. You have a fair case without that. I understand a little more now, I think. You feel that they didn't consider what they were doing to depth that they should have, and as a result, they disrespected hundreds of thousands of people that suffer from mental health conditions.

  • Chrisa March 13, 2011 at 1:27 am

    Hi Jacynta:

    I'm not saying anything about how the dancers feel. Or even their coaches. What really gets me is that many people still think this is ok. They didn't give it a thought at all – that's the point.

  • Jacynta March 13, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Okay, now I really think I get what you're saying. Okay, I get it. It makes more sense now.

    Also, I agree with you that satire can still be offensive. One of the satirists in the Cracked article that I linked you to (and, may I add, this skit is not a decade old), is the Chaser's "Make a Realistic Wish" skit. They went much too far, despite what they were trying to do. It was still offensive.

    We may have had a difference in opinion, or insight, but I think we've come to some kind of understanding now. Do you agree? And from my side, I can say that you have opened my mind to a few things. Also, I don't think this dance ever should have happened either, just to make that clear.

  • Chrisa March 13, 2011 at 1:36 am

    I do agree. That's the whole reason I love continuing the conversation in the comments! Thanks for conversing with me.

  • Jacynta March 13, 2011 at 1:43 am

    That's good. Thanks to you too.

  • Chrisa March 14, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    The page with the press release about their dance team victory – and the picture of the team in straight jackets – is down. Here's the cached version:

  • Anonymous March 15, 2011 at 3:13 am

    Omg this woman is crazy. They were not offending anyone. Not your son or any other person with mental illness. This is dance, this is art. Why don' you send an email to TV or any other comedian who always make fun of crazy people. God is people like yourself that don't let young artistic people progress because everything is just wrong. Sorry we don't walk with a anti- sentimental detector around.

  • Chrisa March 15, 2011 at 3:21 am

    By "this woman" I assume you mean me. Hi.

    These people you refer to aren't "crazy". They have an illness. It's an organic brain disorder, like Alzheimers Disease.

    Did they dress as cancer patients, bald and thin? Did they dance as persons going into diabetic shock? No, of course not. That would be insensitive.

    So why is this any less insensitive?

    If 10% of teens and young adults have a mental health condition, how many teens and young adults saw their routine and now won't get help for fear of being seen as "crazy"?

    And how many will attempt suicide?

    It's not sentimentality. Awareness is about saving LIVES.

  • Kristina March 15, 2011 at 3:26 am

    Anonymous, I find it interesting that you feel that you are in charge of deciding who gets to be offended and who doesn't. This is an issue dear to many of us who live with mental illness in some form in our daily lives. We see the effect stigma has every day. This is just another example of how the lack of education can cause pain in other people's lives.

  • Adrienne March 15, 2011 at 3:26 am

    Hey, Chrisa, you know what's great about anonymous troll visitors? They remind us how far we have to go. They reinvigorate us to continue chipping away at the stigma that says it's OK to beat on our kids as long as "artistic expression" is at stake.

    And if we get called the "political correctness gestapo" or something equally offensive, we can be reassured that we are hitting the right nerves.

    Everyone is someone, a person, not an object to be used for amusement. I'm sad for the people who are not able to understand that.

  • Anonymous March 15, 2011 at 3:33 am

    I understand that. I, myself, have a mentally challenged brother but this girls in no way at all were trying to make fun of anyone. Its dance. It is a form of expression. Why don't you go target the big celebs who do it? Why is it always the teens, the people who just want to do something for themselves ? I get where you are coming from. But I did not think that dance was in any way insulting.

  • Anonymous March 15, 2011 at 3:33 am

    I am a student at Robert Morris and also apart of the Maroon dance team (not the above). Our dance team was not in any way shape or form, trying to make fun of the mentally ill. It was about creativity and Art because dancing is a form of Art. You also had to be there to hear the introduction which explained the details behind the performance. The song that they danced to also played a major part.The name of the song is Fast As You Can by Fiona Apple. The performance was created to increase an awareness of mental illness. Our team also wore straight jackets to increase the difficulty of the dance by dancing and doing turns and many complicated moves without the use of hands. You really just had to be their to see the routine. You can't just judge a team based off a picture. Just like you can't judge a book by it's cover there is always more to it. Our girls worked really hard on this routine and endured many bruises from the difficulty of this dance. Also very important the outfits worn are Culinary Chef Jackets not official straight jackets.

  • luvsnv March 15, 2011 at 3:34 am

    Just where does one purchase a straight jacket from? I see no need for anyone to be in need of one outside of a supervised, licensed, setting.

  • Chrisa March 15, 2011 at 3:36 am

    To the student who posted: If it was to increase awareness, that's great. Then why didn't your coach tell me that when I emailed her? Why didn't the University President say as much when John Keilman of the Tribune called and talked to him?

    I'm sure they did work hard – and did well enough to place in the top 10. What concerns me is that this happens, over and over, and no one thinks of what they are parodying – unless someone speaks up.

  • Jessica March 15, 2011 at 3:37 am

    Oh please a troll? No, I understand her point and everyone else point in here but To me that was not insulting at all. It was art and the same way you ladies stand by your decision and ideas, i will stand by mine and stick with it. It was not intended to insult or hurt anyone. Just a dance, a form of expression.

  • Chrisa March 15, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Jessica: But it did. It did hurt people. Have you ever seen a friend or family member restrained, with an actual crazed look, in the throes of a brain that is defying them? I have. It's scary.

  • Jen March 15, 2011 at 4:05 am

    Yes, I have to say, as one who has looked in the eyes of not one but two children who have been deep in the throes of mental illness, it does hurt. And I have shown them the pictures of your team, and asked them how it makes them feel, and let me tell you, it *hurts*. It makes them feel marginalized, made fun of, makes them feel less then. Where they struggle *every* *single* *day* to feel like they fit into society, you are there to point them out, make fun of them, call them *crazy*. All in the name of art. No, it's not art. It's stigma. And it's not okay.

  • Anonymous March 15, 2011 at 4:06 am

    The President is not really much involved in our activities as for our coach I have no idea why she did not respond. No one was thinking the way you thought which is something that you have to think about. Also they were not straight jackets they were Chef Jackets. Should dancers only portray jazz, hip hop, contemperary, tap..ect or can they go out of the box and create different ways to present the art of dance with out people taking it so offensive. This is 2011. If it was meant to be a joke and was created to tell a story, I dont see the big deal. Like I said you had to see the performance.

  • Diary of Big Al, Excentric Man March 15, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Anonymous, The thing about a bunch of stupid cheerleader/dance team is that they are all shallow, egotistical, narcissistic, spoiled rich kids.They have loose morals and are all thoughtless mean girls. Well that is how they are portrayed. They are portrayed as that by many movies and TV shows. I guess you have to see all the performances to understand it is just art when the actors portray them that way. After all, they are just expressing their creative energies when they present them as clueless bimbos.No harm is done because it's just thinking outside of the box. I see a brass pole in those girls future. Of course, I am just expressing my artistic and creative mind so please don't think that I mean your a bimbo just because you were also a "dancer". Maybe it's because I am crazy and my Chefs jacket is cutting off my circulation. Pffftttt. I used small words for you as well. I know how dancers can't understand big ones. Call my words just "a form of expression".

  • Paula Buege March 15, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Interesting that you think a comparison of Hip Hop, Jazz and tap are in any way closely related to the stigmatizing portrayal of mental illness and call it Art.

    You do understand that jazz, hip hop, tap and contemporary music are genres of music. How does mental illness fit into a genre of music?

    I can tell you, mental illness is no joke. As for telling a story about mental illness? How do you figure dancing to Fiona Apple's music in mock straight jacks tells a story? Whose story are you telling? Did your story telling help, or hurt?

  • Lorinda March 15, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    I, too, had tried to give the benefit of doubt to the intent when news of the Waunakee routine came out. I very quickly learned that what Chrisa is saying was true. There actually was no intent of education. There was simple ignorance, which to me is the worst part. This indicates the high level of ignorance of the serious health crisis in this country. There is ignorance that mental health disorders are as much of a medical disorder as diabetes or cancer. There is complete ignorance that this can occur in any family at any point in time.

  • Paula Buege March 15, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Diary of Big Al, Excentric Man,

    YOU ROCK! Thanks for lifting my spirits with your creative artistic diatribe. Today you're my hero 😉

  • Anonymous April 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    I hope that some of you pay serious attention to this whole episode. You are deliberately going out of your way to find things to be offended by. You had to deliberately search to find this news item in the first place, it didn't just randomly pop up on your computer. So to write this letter over how offended you are by something you went out of your way to *be* offended by is somewhat …… odd….. shall we say. Disturbingly odd, irrationally odd. Almost ummmm… if there were some sort of mental disorder that makes you so compulsively obsessed with the idea of using your son's difficulties as some way to bring notoriety to yourself.

    This posting truly sickens me in that you cannot see how disturbed your behavior is, how much you seriously need help.

  • Chrisa April 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Wow – if you'd actually read the FIRST LINE of this post, you'd see that your entire presumption about me is dead wrong.

  • Anonymous April 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Chrisa, nice post, keep up the good work. You might be interested that there is a comment thread discussing your work here:

    Some of them aren't being nice, I just wanted to let you know because as a mother, I like to know when people are talking about me.

  • Chrisa April 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Hi second Anonymous (?) – thanks for the heads up. Yeah, I know. Whatever. They can only surmise what they surmise because Brendan O'Neill didn't write the truth. If they'd read my letter – oh, and the letter I wrote him in response to his request for comment (which was more than just that one line), they'd realize that.

    But that would take self-action. They'd rather be fed their opinions by the media.

  • Anonymous April 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Hi. I read the post in Reason about the RMU dance, and I saw your comment about being "fed" lies over there, so I took it upon myself to read your letter to RMU. In light of your comments, I'm just wondering if you could post that letter you sent to Mr. O'Neill. You've offered, and I'm willing to take the time to read it. Thanks in advance,


  • Chrisa April 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I did post the letter I wrote Brendan O'Neill, here:

  • Anonymous April 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    dear god your an idiot

  • Chrisa April 18, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    At least I know how to spell, and I know the basic rules of punctuation and capitalization.

  • Anonymous April 18, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    You are a stupid bitch. You offend me. Crazy people are crazy. Like you and your daughter. Can't imagine where she got it from.

  • Chrisa April 18, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I usually don't post the personal attacks, but this one above made me laugh my ass off. Let's play a game. Can you find all the factual errors in the comment above? Hint: the only thing he/ she got right is that I can be a bitch on occasion.

  • Heather October 11, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    hey-I know I'm late to this post, but I wanted to thank you for speaking up about this issue. A show choir at a competition my niece's choir was at used straight jackets/"crazy makeup" last year. I still have a bad feeling about it.

  • Anonymous December 7, 2012 at 1:00 am

    I am a new Anonymous commenting. I have dealt with mental health issues in my own and in my spouse's family. I take absolutely no offense to these girl's costume… Thinking like this would lead to the Fray "How to Save a life" being banned because survivors of suicide couldn't listen to it (I have a friend who lost her son to suicide and started a not for profit and that song is it's theme…) or should we ban Alice in Wonderland? Poe?? If you don't like a book, don't read it, if you don't like a show, change the channel if you don't like these girls choice of expression, don't watch it. Also don't watch "American Horror" as this year it's set in an asylum… or shall we ban that too? The "Soprano's" and "Private Practice" both had episodes that depicted rape, should they not have done so because of the impact on rape victims? We live in a nation where there is freedom of expression.

  • Chrisa Hickey December 7, 2012 at 1:46 am

    You're right. This is a nation rooted in freedom of expression. And I never said this routine shouldn't be allowed nor did I ask the school to end it. But just as they have the right to perform this routine, I have the right to express my distaste for it.

    The difference between Poe and CS Lewis and Private Practice and this routine is that those things weren't exaggerating the spectacularly wrong misconception – not to mention long-standing negative stereotype – that personevwirh mental illness are hollow-eyes, wild-haired, Dangerous whackos.