VERMONT TEDDY BEAR CONTROVERSY 2005


CLICK HERE for more commentary, correspondence, and links to relevant information prepared by Morgan W. Brown, a mental health advocate in Vermont.
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This page was prepared by:
National Stigma Clearinghouse
Web: www.stigmanet.org



Contents: Click item needed
Straitjacketed Teddy Bear Angers Mental Health Advocates
Straitjackets Have History of Abuse and Death
Real Coercion in the Real World (Letter, Susan Stefan)
Will More Open Dialogue Emerge from Controversy? Editorial:Times Argus
What's Endearing About a Straitjacket?
New York Times Reports Straitjacketed Teddy Bear Controversy
Fletcher Allen's Board Member's Position Threatened by Teddy: Times Argus
Human Rights Commission Criticizes Straitjacketed Bear:TheChamplainChannel.com
Letter from Robert Appel, Human Rights Commission, to Elisabeth Robert
A Plea For Consideration
Teddy Bear Company Wavers After Meeting With Advocates
Vermont Teddy Bear Controversy Winds Down
Teddy Bear Raises Questions About Ethics and Public Relations, Associated Press/Boston Globe
Will Teddy Bear Become Case Study?, Associated Press/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Contact Information for Vermont Teddy Bear Company

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January 23, 2005 (updated 1/29)

STRAITJACKETED TEDDY BEAR ANGERS MENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATES

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 Rights Commission.

The company will meet with advocates on February 8th but says sales will continue until Valentine's Day.

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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 Times)

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. Email stigmanet@webtv.net.

REFERENCES
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 Newsday,
December 15, 16, 17, 1991.

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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 merchandise.

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We urge advocates nationwide to send their comments to the Vermont Teddy Bear Company.

Contact Information:
Elizabeth Robert, President
Vermont Teddy Bear Company
6655 Shelburne Road
Shelburne, VT 05482
E-mail: LizR@vtbear.com

Toll-free phone for bear comments:
1-888-502-1715

More info:
Phone: 1-800-988-8277
Fax: 1-802-985-1382
Web: http://www.VermontTeddyBear.com
E-mail: nicolel@vtbear.com (Nicole L'Huillier, Public Relations Manager)

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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 Capitol Region
http://www.timesargus.com

Bearly tolerable
Times Argus
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 complaint.

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 bears.

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 first place.

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 cringe.

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 tourist destination.

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 didn't know."

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 stereotype.

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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. 13, 2005).

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 restraints.

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?

Susan Stefan
Center for Public Representation
Newton, MA. 02460

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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 other bears.)

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 health laws.

"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 parity."

"We're also concerned about the reputation of this particular company," Mr. Gibbs said. "They are a valued employer; they are a tourist attraction."
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. L'Huillier said.

The company has received about 150 supportive e-mail messages and phone calls regarding its "Crazy for You" bear and about 400 in opposition, she said.

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 Bear.' "

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 "