VERMONT TEDDY BEAR
HERE for more commentary, correspondence, and links to
relevant information prepared by Morgan W. Brown, a mental health
advocate in Vermont.
This page was prepared by:
National Stigma Clearinghouse
January 23, 2005 (updated 1/29)
STRAITJACKETED TEDDY BEAR ANGERS MENTAL HEALTH
Vermont Teddy Bear Company Remains Unmoved
Some see the "Crazy for You" bear as a lighthearted Valentine's
Day gift. To give "edge," the Vermont Teddy Bear Company (VTB)
tied the bear in a straitjacket, gave it "commitment papers," and
promised the helpless bear would make a sweetheart "go nuts" about the
giver. Now the company is said to offer straitjackets for restraining
other bears on your shelf.
Others say the "edgy" bear's appearance is painful, provocative, and
trivializes a traumatic and sometimes fatal experience. Among its
critics are prominent Vermont citizens who strongly object to the
straitjacket's use as a marketing gimmick, and most recently, the Human
The company will meet with advocates on February 8th but says sales
will continue until Valentine's Day.
January 23, 2005
STRAITJACKETS HAVE HISTORY OF ABUSE AND DEATH
The National Stigma Clearinghouse has been unable to find current
information about the use of straitjackets. For the first time, Google
failed us: most of their links sent us to S&M sites.
Nevertheless, our files show decades of straitjacket abuse and public
indifference, an indifference now demonstrated by the Vermont Teddy
Bear Company (scroll down for contact information).
In 1991, Newsday (Long Island, NY) exposed a shocking record of
death by restraint in New York. Their investigation, described in a
series of articles by Kathleen Kerr, was followed by a 2-year
investigation by the state's office of mental health. In 1994, new
guidelines for use of restraints were issued "amid growing pressure
from advocacy groups made up of former patients." (Quote from NY
In 1998, Eric M. Weiss of the Hartford Courant reported that
between 50 and 150 deaths by restraint occur every year across the
country. Weiss was referring to an unprecedented study of restraint
statistics commissioned by the Hartford Courant and conducted
by a research specialist at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.
The study's findings brought calls for nationwide reform in 1998 led by
the congressional delegation from Connecticut. At that time, the
article reported, "The federal government does not collect data on how
many patients are killed by a procedure that is used every day in
psychiatric and mental retardation facillities across the country.
Neither do state regulators, academics, or accreditation agencies."
The researchers found that in the 114 cases where ages could be
confirmed, children accounted for more than 26 percent of the deaths.
Did the federal government ever act? If you know, please let us know.
Article: "Mental Patients' Deaths Probed," by Eric M. Weiss, Hartford
Courant, October 11, 1998.
Article: "Proposal Urges an End to Straitjacket Use," by Lisa W.
Foderaro, New York Times, July 27, 1994.
Series of articles: "Death By Restraint," by Kathleen Kerr, New York
December 15, 16, 17, 1991.
January 23, 2005
WHAT'S ENDEARING ABOUT A STRAITJACKET?
Mental Health Advocates Not Amused by Straitjacketed Teddy Bear
Why do straitjackets, a symbol of force and humiliation, appeal to
advertisers and product marketers? We can't answer that question, but
the National Stigma Clearinghouse archive shows straitjackets have been
used as a marketing tool for many years.
This week, a coalition of mental health advocates in Vermont confronted
the Vermont Teddy Bear Company of Shelburne with strong
objections to the company's new "Crazy for You Bear."
Designed as a Valentine's Day gift, the nationally-sold bear has the
following description: "Dressed in a white straight jacket embroidered
with a red heart, this Bear is a great gift for someone you're crazy
about. He even comes with a "Commitment Report" stating, "Can't Eat,
Can't Sleep, My Heart's Racing. Diagnosis: "Crazy for you! Trust us!
She'll go nuts over this Bear!"
Although straitjackets are now limited in use after causing suffering
and death for decades, the lingering image is intensely painful. While
some people laugh at a straitjacket, a mere picture of one will reduce
others to tears.
What seems apparent from this episode?
1) The people who sell the bear are either unaware of, or indifferent
to the harm that can result from the commercial exploitation of an
illness or disability.
2) The marketers are unaware of, or indifferent to the possible
consequences of ridiculing a group protected by Human Rights Law.
3) Straitjackets reinforce the public's existing misconceptions about
the dangerousness of people with mental illnesses. From an antistigma
point of view, the bear promotes inaccurate information.
4) Unlike other powerful symbols of oppression (a lynching noose for
example), the general public accepts the use of straitjackets to market
We urge advocates nationwide to send their comments to
the Vermont Teddy Bear Company.
Elizabeth Robert, President
Vermont Teddy Bear Company
6655 Shelburne Road
Shelburne, VT 05482
Toll-free phone for bear comments:
(Nicole L'Huillier, Public Relations Manager)
January 23, 2005
WILL MORE OPEN DIALOGUE EMERGE FROM STRAITJACKETED BEAR CONTROVERSY?
Below is a perceptive editorial that appeared in Central Vermont's Times
Argus a week after mental health advocates formally protested a
straitjacketed teddy bear sold by the Vermont Teddy Bear Company
Source: Times Argus, serving Barre/Montpelier and
January 16, 2005
The Vermont Teddy Bear, icon of the cute and cuddly, has strayed into
the territory of the tasteless, and the company is hearing growls of
The company is known worldwide for the wide array of stuffed bears it
offers. Instead of sending flowers, you can order up a birthday bear or
a get well bear or any of dozens of other bears, including occupation
bears, such as lawyer bears, lady lawyer bears, even desert camouflage
There is also a selection of Valentine bears, and that is where the
company ran into trouble. There is a "Crazy for You" bear that is
really crazy, as in tied-up-in-a-straitjacket crazy. Mental health
advocates are offended by the joke. Mental illness is no laughing
matter to those who suffer it, those helping those who suffer it and
those who advocate for enlightened policies related to mental illness.
Even Gov. James Douglas was offended by the straitjacketed bear, saying
that if it were up to him the bear would not have been created in the
Of course, it was not up to him, and manufacturers are free to
manufacture all sorts of tasteless items for sale.
Tastelessness is its own market niche. Some of the T-shirts on display
during an ordinary walk through the mall are enough to make ordinary
People may be surprised to learn that Vermont Teddy Bear Co. has
ventured into the realm of tastelessness, but the straitjacket bear is
not the only bear verging on the bizarre. For a more risqué
option, you could choose PlayBear Playmate, which is a bear imitating a
woman imitating a bunny (licensed by Playboy, of course). She is "fun
and flirtatious," according to the Web site, which means she has the
traditional Playboy cottontail and satin outfit with ears, tuxedo cuffs
and collar, all adorning the traditional round-shaped bear. It's hard
to figure out who should be offended — feminists or animal lovers.
Vermont Teddy Bear Co., it turns out, is not in business to reinforce
our ideas of wholesomeness. It is in the business of making money. It
does so by offering a vast array of choices for customers looking to
send what they think of as a personal message — or, to use the
trademark term, a Bear-Gram. It wasn't long ago that the company was in
the doldrums, financially, but in recent years profits have grown.
Employment has also grown at both its Shelburne and Newport
manufacturing plants, and the Shelburne plant has become an important
That doesn't make the "Crazy for You" joke easier to take for mental
health advocates. But it is a sign of progress in the evolution of
social issues when the question of "political correctness" becomes a
matter for debate. Political correctness is really another way of
talking about respect. Mental health issues are now out in the open
sufficiently that advocates feel justified in demanding respect.
Sensitivity on the issue remains acute; maybe when it is clear that
society has adopted enlightened attitudes toward the mentally ill, then
advocates may be willing to go along with the joke. Until then they
will let people know when the mentally ill are disrespected.
People have a choice of being close-minded or open-minded. As in other
cultural debates, such as the question of American Indian school
mascots, the close-minded response is: "Lighten up. No offense is
intended." The open-minded response is: "Oh. You find it offensive. I
That is when discussion begins.
Straitjacket bear will continue to be available, according to the
company, but only through Valentine's Day. Some people will think it's
funny. Some people won't. Meanwhile, a small act of insensitivity
regarding mental illness has become the occasion for people to realize
there was more to the joke than they realized. Vermont Teddy Bear will
have reaped publicity because of the brouhaha, which may boost sales.
It would be a surprise if they brought back straitjacket bear next year.
NOTE from National Stigma Clearinghouse: Much as we
admire many of the sentiments expressed in "Bearly Tolerable," some of
the language used implies a one-size-fits-all view of mental illnesses.
The preferred term is "mental illnesses" or "a mental illness," both
more accurate than the collective "mental illness." The phrase, "the
mentally ill," reduces a disparate group of individuals to a faceless
January 23, 2005
REAL COERCION IN THE REAL WORLD
The following letter by Susan Stefan, Center for Public Representation,
has been submitted to the Boston Globe:
I have represented people with psychiatric disabilities for over twenty
years, and would like to provide your readers with some context for the
pain and anger caused by the sale of a bear in a straitjacket with
"commitment papers." ("`Crazy´ teddy bear prompts protest," Jan.
This is what it's like for some people to be committed: police show up
at your door at night with no notice and handcuff you and take you off
to a hospital for assessment. Sometimes they won't tell you where you
are being taken or why. Sometimes you have kids left in the house.
Sometimes you have a job to go to, sometimes you are paraded in your
nightclothes past your neighbors in the apartment building. Sometimes
you are sobbing on the phone to a hot line in the bedroom and you don't
hear the police so they break the door down. If the hospital decides to
keep you, you stay there for days before you go to court, and when you
go to court, the judge thinks you're crazy, because if not, why would
you be there?
This is what it's like to be restrained: you lie on a bed with your
hands and legs apart tied down with leather restraints. Sometimes they
let you out to go to the bathroom and tie you back up, sometimes you
get a bedpan. Someone is watching you, but sometimes that person is
told not to talk to you or answer your questions. You don't know when
you are going to be untied. If you get more upset because you are tied
up, you stay tied up longer. Hundreds of people have died in
This is how it is. It's not funny, or cute, or anything but frightening
and awful. If the teddy bear was a representation of any other member
of our society tied up and powerless, how would we react?
Center for Public Representation
Newton, MA. 02460
January 23, 2005
NEW YORK TIMES REPORTS STRAITJACKETED BEAR CONTROVERSY
Source: New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/22/national/22bear.html
(Subscription -free- is needed)
Article reprinted below:
January 22, 2005
Toy's Message of Affection Draws Anger and Publicity
By PAM BELLUCK
SHELBURNE, Vt., Jan. 20 - The Vermont Teddy Bear Company believed it
had a winner of a Valentine gift: its "Crazy for You" teddy bear, a
cuddly bundle of fur - with paws restrained by a straitjacket and the
outfit accompanied by commitment papers.
But when the company, a nationally known retailer and tourist
attraction much loved in Vermont, started selling the teddy bear this
month, it created an uproar.
Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican who considers the company's president a
friend, called the bear "very insensitive" at a news conference,
saying: "Mental health is very serious. We should not stigmatize it
further with these marketing efforts."
Pleas to stop selling the bear have come from state legislators,
medical professionals and mental health advocates, who say they object
not to the "crazy for you" sentiment but to the straitjacket and
commitment papers because they represent such an extreme and painful
image of mental illness.
The mother of a mentally ill teenager in Massachusetts started a
petition drive, helped by students in local public schools.
And both the president and the chairman of Vermont's only teaching
hospital, Fletcher Allen Health Care, criticized the company,
significant because the president of Vermont Teddy Bear, Elisabeth
Robert, sits on the hospital's board. Mental health advocates want Ms.
Robert removed from her hospital position, and the board chairman,
William Schubart, is considering the request.
"That kind of lighthearted depiction of illness is just not something I
tolerate," Mr. Schubart said.
Vermont Teddy Bear said it would keep its original plan of selling the
bear, which costs $69.95, in its stores and on its Web site through
Valentine's Day, its busiest season. (In its Shelburne store, little
straitjackets are also sold separately so customers can accessorize
In a statement, the company said, "We recognize that this is a
sensitive, human issue and sincerely apologize if we have offended
anyone." It added, "This bear was created in the spirit of Valentine's
Day" and "was designed to be a lighthearted
depiction of the sentiment of love."
Company officials have agreed to meet with the National Alliance for
the Mentally Ill. Bob Carolla, an alliance spokesman, said the company
first resisted meeting before Valentine's Day but then agreed to meet
on Feb. 8. Mr. Carolla said that his group had fought the use of
straitjackets in advertisements, but that this was the first
straitjacketed product he could recall.
Ms. Robert (pronounced roh-BEAR) said in an interview that the company,
based in Shelburne, made the 15-inch bear after a customer survey
yielded "overwhelmingly positive feedback."
When complaints started, Ms. Robert said, she reflected on the matter
"for virtually an entire day."
She said she talked to employees and the board of directors, and
reviewed public feedback. "I listened to our customers - they were
buying the bear," Ms. Robert said.
She concluded that "there were many business reasons not to pull the
product off the market - profit wasn't the only one."
The bear has upset many Vermont residents because the company, like the
ice cream maker Ben and Jerry's, is a Vermont mascot of sorts and has
popular community programs like providing teddy bears for injured
children. Also, Vermont is considered a state with progressive mental
"Vermont Teddy Bear has a reputation for being socially responsible and
sensitive," Jason Gibbs, a spokesman for Governor Douglas, said. "And
you would think that someone who sits on the board of trustees of
Vermont's only academic medical center would have an exceeding degree
of respect for the need to treat the mental health community with
"We're also concerned about the reputation of this particular company,"
Mr. Gibbs said. "They are a valued employer; they are a tourist
Nicole L'Huillier, a company spokeswoman, said that despite making a
product associated with children, Vermont Teddy Bear advertised to
adults, often on radio shows like Howard Stern's. In addition to bears
dressed as princesses and Superman, it also has a Playboy bear.
"The majority of our customers are men at Valentine's Day," Ms.
The company has received about 150 supportive e-mail messages and phone
calls regarding its "Crazy for You" bear and about 400 in opposition,
Fueled by the uproar, about 2,000 bears were sold last week, she said,
a volume considered "very high," but sales have recently "leveled off."
Supporters of the company's decision to keep selling the bear say
opponents are too politically correct.
Ken Schram, a commentator for KOMO-TV in Seattle, said on the air that
"the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is bouncing around its
round rubber boardroom." And Robert Paul Reyes, a columnist for The
Lynchburg Ledger, a weekly newspaper in central Virginia, advised the
head of the Vermont chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally
Ill chapter to "take a Valium, or better yet buy a 'Crazy for You
Some Vermont residents also dismiss the objections.
"It's a lovey, huggy little bear," said Al Bounds, 74, of Shelburne,
which is a Burlington suburb. "Who cares what it's wearing?"
Mr. Bounds said he thought the controversy was "