Why I'm Not Laughing at This 'Mental Hospital' Meme

Before developing a serious mental illness at age 21, I didn’t notice that people joked about psychiatric hospitals and patients. I can think of times when friends would say an assignment, classmate, or coworker would make them “crazy enough for the third floor” of our local hospital. In the summer of 2013, I discovered that the “third floor” was the psychiatric unit and ended up being a patient there for over a month.

Offensive mental hospital meme.
Offensive mental hospital meme.

I was recently searching for a best friend quote for a friend’s birthday card, and images with this quote came up multiple times. I remember reading it prior to being in a psychiatric hospital, but not really detecting that it was offensive. After being in a place that people joke about and stigmatize, I became aware of the negativity and harm quotes like this can produce for the hospital and individuals touched by mental illness.

I think the majority of friends have had strange, funny, or silly conversations; these chats can be the foundation of solid and lasting friendships. As someone who has a mental illness, I find it disturbing that this quote is used as a joke when there are people in the hospital who are fighting battles with what is going on in their heads. Whether patients are there for testing, medications, monitoring, therapy, treatments, or learning coping skills, they are all there because they need help. A psychiatric hospital provides a safe environment for people dealing with actual psychiatric disorders. When these hospitals aren’t taken seriously, it also sends the message that those with mental illness shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Most of the images with this quote are brightly colored with cartoon characters or laughing faces. Although I write about how my hospital experiences were not like the frightening and dated pictures someone might see online if they searched “mental hospitals,” these images can be equally damaging to hospitals’ reputations. While I never witnessed the chilling conditions seen in the old black and white photos, I also never saw neon green hallways with emojis on the walls or old friends laughing about their inside jokes and how hilarious it is to be in a psychiatric hospital together. Making light of a serious psychiatric condition doesn’t make the situation better, it just makes people feel ashamed for something they can’t control.

A common misconception that arises from this quote is that people are just “put” in mental hospitals. In reality, the majority of patients are there voluntarily. For those who become patients involuntarily, they need to be a serious threat to themselves or others and often require the intervention of police and medical workers to get to the hospital. The experience is difficult for everyone involved. There is nothing funny about being “put” in a psychiatric hospital.

When I see this quote or hear people joke about psychiatric hospitals, I instantly think about my time as a patient and all the amazing individuals I met in those few months. To think there are people who joke about our treatment and our diagnoses makes me feel disappointed with our society, but it also inspires me to educate others about the realities of living with a mental illness. I wholeheartedly know that psychiatric hospitals save lives; I’ve seen it happen many times. Before sharing that quote or image online, or before making a joke about psychiatric hospitals, think about those whose lives depend on being there. I guarantee that if you or a friend were actually “put in a mental hospital,” you wouldn’t be laughing.

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