Complaints Make A Difference!

Straitjacket dance criticized

Robert Morris team’s performance called insensitive

By John Keilman Tribune reporter
The Chicago Tribune
 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.”

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. PJ Severson says

    The stigma surrounding mental illness is perhaps the most degrading of all those who we discriminate against. These young women have been ill advised; shame on the culture who allowed and condoned their activities.
    Few of us reading this blog have actually experienced a life threatening crisis in a psychiatric setting which required the restraints of a straight jacket. Perhaps some have survived a suicide attempt…perhaps some of us have been saved in an acute inpatient psychiatric unit… son has been there many times, and each time it has saved his life.
    Just like a cardiac unit when we are experiencing a life threatening cardiac event,
    a critical care psychiatric unit saves lives. When we can treat mental illness with the same compassion and dignity as any other medical condition, then we have arrived to a higher level of intelligence and understanding of brain disorders.

    Earlier this year, the Waunakee High School Girls dance team performed with straight jacket costumes and made it to the Wisconsin State competition…we were outraged that the adults in their lives supported them at all the competitions along the way. This dance team is a college team…hmmm. How did they get this far? Perhaps the worst offense of all is that there are those who believe that there was no harm done.

  2. I hope that Chrisa Hickey is handing out candy to children on Haloween and gives an ass chewing to any children that are dressed like a “crazy person”.  I have seen members of my family in jail and I don’t get uspset abotu people wearing orange jump suits.  I’m also a soldier and I don’t get upset when some one dresses like a terrorist.  GET OVER IT.  this is a FREE country.  Quit destroying our country.  If you don’t like a dance routine.  DON”T F**KING WATCH IT!.