Knott’s Close By Mental Health Advocates

In anticipation of Halloween, the folks who run Knott’s Berry Farm did a lousy thing, and mental health advocates were outraged.

Then on Tuesday afternoon, park managers reversed course and shut down an attraction. But did they do so for the right reasons?

Here’s the story; you be the judge.

Ron Thomas went to Knott’s last week to check out FearVR, a controversial attraction at the theme park’s Scary Farm.

You remember Ron Thomas. He’s the guy who lost his son, Kelly, a little more than five years ago. The beating of the long-suffering 37-year-old by Fullerton police officers was sad testament to the critical shortage of services for those with debilitating mental illness, the lack of police training to deal with them, and the stigma around the disease.

Thomas still speaks up for his son and those like him, and against those who perpetrate stereotypes. He is an advocate, and he is still Kelly’s father, and in both capacities he went to see what FearVR was all about, knowing it had originally been called FearVR: 5150, a reference to the code for a psychiatric commitment.

But it was sold out.

“I couldn’t get in,” Thomas said. “There were so many people waiting to get in.”

Instead, he talked to people as they exited and asked them to describe FearVR. They told him they were strapped into seats as if being admitted to a hospital, and then were transported into a frightening scene of mayhem.

“Virtual reality-wise you’re led to believe you’re in some kind of institution,” Thomas said, and a patient “is on the loose … and she’s coming for you.”

That description jibes with the one Knott’s distributed before the opening.

“Enter the mysterious Meadowbrook Institute and witness the abnormal case of a terrifyingly unusual patient named Katie,” it said, describing the experience of being “strapped to a wheelchair” and coming “face-to-face with the deadly chaos unraveling around you.… Patients beware; it is easier to check in than out.”

The whole thing sounded wildly inappropriate to Thomas, whose son was in and out of mental facilities in his years-long struggle with schizophrenia.

“It’s so insensitive,” said Thomas, whose son called out to him for help as he was beaten by police.

Members of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness complained to Knott’s about the attraction. Just before the premier last week, Knott’s dropped 5150 from the name, explaining its decision in a note to NAMI chapter President John Leyerle.

“It is never our intent to be disrespectful to any individual or group,” said the unsigned note. “The virtual reality experience is actually built around paranormal, zombie-like activity in a medical hospital setting. Cedar Fair [the parent company of Knott’s] recognizes the perception of the experience has raised concerns around the insensitivity to the stigmas surrounding mental health.… Part of the confusion stems from the use of the code 5150 in the experience’s original name. For that reason, the name has been changed to FearVR.”

Leyerle said he thought that was a step in the right direction, but he wasn’t entirely satisfied and requested a meeting with Knott’s officials. He wanted a chance to enlighten the folks at Knott’s about the realities of mental illness, and explain why the exploitation and stigmatization of those afflicted is unacceptable.

But on Monday, he told me he’d gotten no response.

The obvious question is this:

If it wasn’t meant to be a mental institution, why was 5150 originally in the name?

The Times published a mostly positive review of the attraction on Sept. 6, much to the chagrin of some mental health advocates. But Knott’s did not immediately object to The Times’ story, which said Knott’s and two other North American parks with the same attraction would admit visitors “to a mental hospital where a psychiatric patient with demonic powers is on the loose.”

Ron Thomas said changing the name, but not the content, wasn’t good enough.

“If it quacks and waddles,” he said, “it’s a duck.”

It probably cost a small fortune to produce the attraction. So I wondered if Knott’s had decided to cover its investment rather than acknowledge its blunder and shut down the attraction.

On Monday, I tried to reach Knott’s officials by phone and email.

No response again, until 4:27 p.m., when I got an email from Knott’s PR.

“At this time,” it said, “we have decided to close the attraction.”

But another line in the email made me wonder if Knott’s was taking blame or pointing a finger.

“Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness,” it said.

Come on, if you made a mistake, own up to it. Or, as Ron Thomas said, if it waddles and quacks…

But when I called late Tuesday and told him FearVR was being shut down, he was thrilled.

“How wonderful is this?” Thomas said. “They’ve seen the error of their ways…. It’s a good story all around now.”

And stories like this matter to Thomas, to me, and to so many others.

Thomas asked me, as he always does, how my friend Nathaniel is doing.

OK, I told him, but the struggles do not end for someone with schizophrenia. There’s progress, then a fall. Hope follows worry; the cycle repeats.

I visit Nathaniel once a week or so at a local institution, and my heart breaks every time I walk onto his ward. I see someone’s sons and daughters tormented by something beyond their control, through no fault of their own. There’s fear and courage in every one of them, along with hope that better days might be ahead.

They deserve our understanding, compassion and support.

I hope Knott’s really has seen the light, and that others will take heed.

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