This weekend, the clothing chain Joy found itself at the centre of a storm. Briefly: there is a greetings card sold by Joy, which reads in red and white letters: “Don’t get mad, take lithium!” When this was brought to their attention, their response just made matters worse.
Here’s why it matters: the card trivialises mental illness, and the complex and difficult business of medicating it. The card puts ordinary anger on a par with the horrifying and disabling reality of not being able to control your own mind, and it makes lithium sound like a cure-all. For what it’s worth, it’s not.
It is, as Joy's supporters have repeatedly insisted, “just a card”. But things are not made less offensive because they are printed on fancy paper. Some might actually say that the essentially frivolous nature of a greetings card is really not the place for touching on mental illness at all.
And this is not simply a case of short-sighted thoughtlessness: when called out on Twitter for "being offensive to those with bipolar", Joy staff took the opportunity to reinforce the impression given by the card, tweeting "Then if you know anyone with bipolar disorder, don't buy it for them. PROBLEM SOLVED." When asked how they thought people with bipolar might feel, confronted with such a stark image of quite how hilarious society finds their illness, Joy replied: "they'll like it one minute and hate it the next?".
These statements from Joy led to a call for a boycott of the chain, under the hashtag #joycott. It's not only terrible social media strategy to handle a complaint this way, but the tweets are inaccurate and unhelpful; managing to simultaneously promote outdated and inaccurate stereotypes of bipolar disorder, and perhaps perpetuate the on-going stigma that frequently prevents the mentally ill from seeking treatment.
These statements don’t exist in a vacuum. The card (just one card, yes, which nobody is forcing us to look at or purchase) is an indicator of social prejudices: if a hipster fashion brand believes the mentally ill to be an appropriate punch-line for a greetings card, what must the real bigots think?
"We at Joy like to start conversations and create dialogue, we try to be irreverent, sometimes we get it wrong. Please accept our apologies" the brand eventually tweeted. But stigmatising mental illness is not “irreverent”. It isn’t “creating dialogue”, or “starting conversations”. It’s apparently joining in with a vast consensus that people who are disabled (mentally and physically) are somehow worth less. That the lives of people who are mentally ill are, somehow, funny.
It’s absolutely true that people use humour to cope with their own mental illness- but Joy is not “people”. Joy is a clothes shop, a business indirectly therefore using the mentally ill as a punchline to make a profit.
Joy’s supporters have been quoting Stephen Fry: “”I’m offended” has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase”. But they, and Fry, are wrong. We ought to be offended by the idea that a company can make money from trivialising mental illness in this way.
So where does Joy go from here? Perhaps like this: a real, no holds-barred apology. A donation to one of the charities that work to combat the stigma they may have perpetuated. And thorough, sensitive and on-going social media training, because this must not happen again.