Would You Eat a Bipolar Donut?

Campbell, CA-based Psycho Donuts might be the only place in the country where you can buy donuts with names like Bipolar, Manic Malt, or Psycho. It also entertains customers with a padded cell and servers dressed as nurses.

It’s a neat novelty idea–or so the owners thought. However, soon after the store opened, people started protesting, claiming that the donut shop was aggrevating the sense of shame and stigma mental health patients already expreience. They gave the shop bad reviews on Yelp.com, and staged regular protests in front of the store.

Recently, Psycho Donuts co-owner Kipp Berdiansky appeared on TV to debate mental-health advocate Oscar Wright, who is the CEO of the nonprofit United Advocates for Children and Families.

Wright said that the country’s mental health crisis–1 million kids are diagnosed with mental illness annually–involves shame about coming forward and accessing services. Psycho Donuts only accentuates the stigma by playing on mental health terminology. “The message that mental illness can be a joke causes a serious problem,” Wright said in the interview (featured above). “Kids have very impressionable minds. The images and ideas that they see at an early age influence them later in life.”

Berdiansky states his point in the Psycho Donuts blog:

It’s a shame that there are a handful of folks out there who do not have a sense of humor. Follow me here – if our donuts are crazy, does that make us insensitive to the mental health community? Is El Pollo Loco insensitive to Crazy Chickens? Was Patsy Cline being hurtful when she wrote the song Crazy? Is it insensitive to call a donut bipolar? …let’s agree on one thing: donuts are not people; and the names of our donuts do not correspond to any opinion or pre-conceived notion about people.

To those who are spending countless hours building an intricate strategy against us, we have a simple solution — go buy your donuts elsewhere. Or if you don’t like donuts, go spend your time on the bigger problems in the world. Go find a donut shop you like, or focus your concerns on something other than two guys trying to sell donuts. But irregardless — the crowds of people who have a sense of humor will keep coming, and these are our customers.

In this day and age, all of us are a little crazy. 25% of Americans have some clinical form of mental health challenge – and our take is that the rest of us just haven’t been clinically diagnosed yet! I might add that Psycho Donuts contributes to NARSAD (www.narsad.org) – which is a mental health research organization. We might make light of the topic in our store, but we aim to be a positive contributor to positive mental health. Psycho Donuts is a testament to the human condition, and a place where we can all accept our individual faults. If people can leave our store with a smile on their face, then we’ve done our part contributing to people’s positive mental health.

Amen to that. Psycho Donuts’ ability to bring levity to the mental health epidemic reminds me of something I read recently in a book called Creating Mental Illness. In it, author Allan Horwitz claims that although the DSM-IV contains about 400 different diagnoses, the real diseases among them–psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder–make up only a small portion of the list.

Many of the other diagnoses attempt to medicalize conditions without taking cultural factors, stressful life events, or social deviance. Professionals have a tendency both to pathologize and overestimate the prevalance of mental disorders.

A medicalized, pill-popping society is the result. According to NIMH, “26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.” That’s almost 58 million people. Many are diagnosed with more than one mental disorder.

Who benefits? Pharmaceutical companies, for one. Professionals such as psychiatrists and therapists. The media. Anyone who can use the industry to their advantage.

It’s hard to say how many patients (outside of those with serious disorders) benefit from identifying their condition with a pathological cause. Perhaps names give people comfort. Perhaps experts and pills are just a modern replacement for the priests, shamans, and tribal elders of yore. As long as we search for medical names for our anxieties, fears, and obsessions, and find comfort in customized medication, the industry will continue to thrive.

Back to Oscar Wright, the mental health advocate in the debate. To me, part of his message says “stop stigmatizing these poor, victimized people who feel shamed as a result of the labels an overly pathologized system has given them!” By “protecting” people–I still don’t think the donuts are that serious–he is supporting the sense of insecurity and shame that keeps people with vague problems in the grip of the medical industry in the first place.

Instead of targeting a tongue-in-cheek donut shop, Wright should be focusing on the advertisers who try to convince people that they have problems, or the drug companies who keep coming up with new uses for their psychotropics (like the anti-kleptomania pill). This country needs innovative, community solutions to mental health “issues,” not attacks on a satirical small business.

Like Berdiansky said, if you don’t like the donut shop, don’t go there.

Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.