By John Keilman
A Chicago dance team that performed in straitjackets last month has drawn criticism from a mental health advocate who said the outfits displayed insensitivity toward people with mental disorders.
The Robert Morris University competitive dance team wore the costumes, which included wild, frizzy hair and dark eye makeup, at a national contest in Minnesota. Chrisa Hickey, a Barrington mother whose 16-year-old son has schizoaffective disorder, complained to the school after she saw an online photo of the dancers last week.
"It's accepted as entertainment," she said. "But if you've seen your kid restrained and medicated because he's having a complete psychotic break, it wouldn't be entertaining."
Robert Morris President Michael Viollt said the costumes were inappropriate and will not be worn again. Outfits for the dance team, which until now have not been approved by the school, will go through the same committee that approves the uniforms of sports teams, he said.
He said mental health awareness at Robert Morris is conducted mostly in classes dealing with the subject but added that the university will consider any changes that might help increase sensitivity toward people with the disorders.
"We will look into the whole gamut of it," he said.
The incident illustrates a growing effort to combat what some feel are demeaning or frightening images of people with mental illnesses — images they say are all too common in American culture.
Advocates say this barrage of negative depictions contributes to the ostracism felt by many who deal with mental disorders and might prevent some from seeking help.
"There's a general stigma of blaming the individual for the illness, and that makes people afraid to go and get treatment, afraid of being labeled 'one of those people' with the straitjacket and the frizzy hair," said Suzanne Andriukaitis of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Chicago.
Hickey, the Barrington mother, writes a blog about raising a mentally ill child, and last week she received an anonymous tip directing her to Robert Morris' website. It announced the dance team's top 10 finish at the United Performing Association's national competition in late February and included a photo of the team in costume.
Hickey said the women's straitjackets, unkempt hair and black-rimmed eyes appeared to make light of people with mental illness. She was particularly displeased because a similar dance routine, performed by a Wisconsin high school, had been in the news a few weeks before Robert Morris' competition.
Parents and advocates had criticized the dance team at Waunakee High School for wearing straitjacketlike shirts emblazoned with the words "Psych Ward." The team apologized and changed its costumes, and Principal Brian Kersten said the school was looking into ways to increase mental health awareness.
Viollt, the president of Robert Morris, said he had seen his school's dance team perform with wild hair and darkened eyes, but the routine was meant to evoke zombies. He didn't know when straitjackets became part of the performance.
The team's coach, Julie Haller, could not be reached for comment.
Hickey said that while she expected some people to view her objection as an example of political correctness run amok, she felt it was important to raise the issue. Negative images persist because those who live with the realities of mental illness rarely make a public fuss, she said.
She added that she didn't think the dancers chose the costumes out of malice and that she hoped the university would use the episode as an opportunity for education.
"It would be great if they could make sure that kids are aware of (mental disorders) and know it's OK to get help," she said. "That would be a win for me."