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Kenneth Cole Posts Controversial Billboard About Guns and Mental Illness

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Early last week, fashion designer Kenneth Cole tweeted a message about gun reform, and some mental health advocates are outraged.

“Over 40 million Americans suffer from mental illness,” the billboard message reads. “Some can access care…all can access guns.”

Advocates say this perpetuates the stereotype that people with mental illness are violent.

“We’re sick and tired of the stigma associated with our illness,” Dolores Sanchez, mental health advocate and founder of the website Mental Health Justice told The Mighty. “If they’re trying to send the message that we want more accessibility to mental health care, this is a warped way of promoting it.”

In a blog post featured on her website, Sanchez called the billboard a “sensationalized portrayal” and quoted Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, who said, “If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about four percent.” Ultimately, Sanchez wants the billboard to be taken down and for Cole to issue an apology to the 40 million Americans who live with mental illness.

The Brady Campaign, a non-profit that advocates for gun reform, retweeted Cole’s billboard. Brendan Kelly, a representative from the Brady Campaign, said by promoting the billboard, they only meant to reiterate the beliefs of their campaign.

“[The decision to retweet] was simply a reflection of our firm belief that mental health care should be more readily accessible than guns, not to shift any blame to mental health,” he told The Mighty in an email.

But Leo Briones, communications director for Mental Health Justice, told The Mighty this message is like any other subtle, discriminatory act.

“What you’re insinuating is that there are 40 million suffering from mental illness, and if they get a gun they’re going to hurt you,” he said. “It’s an outrage.”

Briones pointed out someone with a mental illness is more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence. He also criticized the nature of the message — a billboard is meant to get people’s attention, fast. No matter Cole’s intent, simplifying an issue and targeting a population of people to get an emotional response is socially irresponsible, Briones said.

The next day, Cole responded to accusations that his message stigmatized those with mentally illness, taking to Twitter to defend his ad.

His message reads, “This ad not meant to further stigmatize those suffering from mental illness community in need and already under-served.”

Creating an environment where people can talk about mental illness without shame, says Sanchez, is a more productive way to start the conversation about gun control and mental illness.

“We’re starving for good care, and there’s a real need and an appetite for a discussion,” she said. “But when you start that discourse with stereotypical, illogical and misleading connections, there’s no way it’s really helping people.”

Sanchez encourages others to reach out to Kenneth Cole, by contacting his organization and joining the already established boycott movement, #‎BoycottKennethCole‬. She’s also asking the Brady Foundation to disavow themselves from the billboard.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments below. 

Originally published: September 3, 2015
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