Things That Make Me Go Hmmmm: Psychiatry-themed Plush Toys

In Germany, the toymaker Paraplush has evidently just released a line of psychiatry-themed plush toys. Each comes ‘packaged with a personalized medical history and treatment plan.’ They’re tied in with an online game made by the same company (warning, Flash, autoplay). Like, for example, Kroko the crocodile:

A closeup of the head of a stuffed crocodile, clinging to a pillow.

Kroko here ‘needs your help!’ His ‘patient profile‘ tells us:

The patient’s hypersensitive hallucinatory perception is a symptom of a paranoid psychosis. The signs are a mental block and a Gestaltzerfall (disintegration of structure) of the habitual field of experience. The consequence is a compensational reactivation of archaic reaction patterns.

The idea behind the toys, according to the creators, is that ‘Children and grown-ups like their [the plush toys’] vulnerability and find something in them that gives them a great sense of comfort in helping to heal them.’

I am reminded of the giant plush microbes I buy for my cats to play with. They experience a great sense of comfort in shredding ebola.

There are a couple of things going on here that I find troubling. I am, in general, not a fan of the cuteification of disability issues, and thus, plush representations of mental health conditions presented as an educational tool bother me. This is just a personal reaction; I know that other people may well feel differently, and I admit that a part of me is kind of bemused by the idea of buying a plush representation of one of my disabilities.

I think there’s also an argument to be made, though, that some people might find these toys beneficial (or just funny in a reclamatory way), and might enjoy subverting the ‘patient profiles’ and ‘treatment plans’ or even writing up treatment plans of their own as a way of reclaiming and owning their own experiences with the mental health establishment. Indeed, I wonder how my perception of these toys would change if they were being produced by and for people with disabilities with the specific goal of empowerment.

I am also really bothered by the reinforcement of psychiatrisation going on with these toys; there’s one toy labeled as having ‘multiple personality disorder,’ for example, whom we are informed is ‘unable to accept herself,’ stressing that the conclusion we are supposed to draw from the patient’s history is that she needs to be ‘fixed’ through integration. Likewise, I assume most of the treatment plans are predicated on the idea of mental illness as something that needs to be controlled, probably with the use of medication. I suspect that other approaches/perspectives/experiences are probably not included in patient profiles and treatment plans.

And, of course, the company’s store is labeled ‘The Asylum: Psychiatric Clinic for Abused Cuddlytoys,’ which…could we not make ‘asylums’ cutesy and funny, please, given that people are forcibly institutionalised to this day in facilities where abuse really does happen? Sometimes really horrific abuse?

What about you? How do you feel about this line of toys? Do you think the context, of who is making them, for whom, and with what intent, is important to consider?

9 Comments

  1. I too am torn by them. On the one hand, I kind of want to get one for schizophrenia and one for bipolar disorder (as I doubt they have one for schizoaffective disorder), and if they were made for people with mental illnesses then I would probably be OK with them. As it is, though, I dislike seeing mental illness trivialized for the entertainment of the non-mentally-ill. Even if it is made for educational purposes, I can’t see them doing much more than giving people a rather stereotyped view of the illness. I suppose the stereotype they’re creating of people with psychosis is probably marginally better than the current one (i.e. violent and probably dangerous), but couldn’t we try to get rid of the stereotypes altogether?

  2. I agree with you that this is some pretty sketchy appropriation. But I’ve played the flash game, and medication is one of a range of tools the player can choose from. It still follows the narrative that there is only one ‘right’ course of treatment for a given problem, after which treatment the patient will be ‘cured,’ but it’s not just pills.

  3. I’m a big fan of the microbes, and in a way I can see that toys could have a valid role in counteracting Big Scary Othering. But these things always seem to be done wrongly, and this seems to me a fairly paradigmatic example of ‘good-ish idea appropriated into the realm of fail.’

  4. I share your unease. I can’t decide if it feels trivializing or slightly normalizing. It’s probably both. And I do want to scoop up Depressed Turtle and hug him. But it’s fairly clear that this wasn’t entirely thought through, which gives me pause.

    Psychiatric Clinic for Abused Cuddlytoys

    Which also comes with the implication that abuse is a necessary precondition to a psychiatric condition. I resent the narrative that the only thing that causes mental illness is a Bad Childhood (TM). As opposed to, say, people abusing a population which is more vulnerable to abuse. Or people who don’t experience abuse and still have a mental illness. Not to erase the mental illnesses that are caused by abuse, they are very real, but I don’t like the implication of causality. It doesn’t help anyone. (Well, it “excuses” parents who don’t want to deal with the fact that their kid has a disability because they weren’t abusive? But not anyone with a disability.)

  5. I had to click away from this to keep from going back to times I’d rater not go back too. It’s too much like how they would talk about me while ignoring “no” and “I don’t want this”. Assuming that I was like some 2-year old or broken thing, or stuffed animal.

    When you’re really in a caring relationship with someone, you can understand shore up their “vulnerabilities” without putting a bunch of words and labels on them. And a lot of kids, cerianly my friends and I already have that kind of relationship with their stuffed animals. When you’re younger, stuffed animal relationships can be very deep and complex, and that’s a huge component in them. Turning that into this Psych viewpoint seems disturbing, and too much like what can happen to many relationships when someone is “mentally ill”. See the “Dear Amy” post earlier on FWD. The person wrote about his Girlfriend “she’s bipolar” without saying anything about knowing that sometimes she wants/needs solitude, or that she really wants to be with people, but finds it difficult. Which is stuff that’s good to know when you’re with somebody. And which “educating yourself about bipolar” will tell you nothing about.

    If they’re so into “psych” they should read some Carl Rogers. On Becoming a Person is a good start.

    And cute-ifying “Asylums”. Ugh.

  6. I played this game a long time ago, not knowing that there were actual stuffed toys associated with it, and I found the game to be rather scary and nerve-wracking, on the whole. It forces you to choose from a variety of treatment options, with little to no information, and the reaction of the toys to unhelpful treatments were quite upsetting. The main message I got out of the game is that it’s hard to help someone when they can’t tell you what’s wrong, and very easy to hurt them accidentally. It’s true that the premise for all of the toys (if I remember correctly) is that something bad happened to them that caused their illness, and that they need to be “cured”. But they’re definitely portrayed as ordinary people who need understanding and help, not scary weird others.

  7. I wrote about this on my blog too, but I still haven’t come to any conclusions. You really hit the nail on the head as far as my concerns go, but I can also see how people with mental disabilities might want to claim one for their own. (If only because I could see some cuddling up with the “depression doll” in my own future.)

  8. The fact stuff like this is around seems to prove that people think of ‘Asylums’ and other (skewed or realistic) psychiatric concepts as being just another set of tropes that can be plugged into a product or piece of fiction to make it novel or edgy or funny. There’s no connection being made with the real lived experience of having mental health issues. It’s more like… flair that can be used to dress something up – that shallow, that unthought-out.

    And we don’t have to go far to find stuff like that – Arkham Asylum in the Batman franchise, for instance, casts a very long shadow in pop culture. Any number of horror movies co-opt mental illness and its derived tropes to provide ‘colour’. Or the Evelyn Evelyn concept album, with its disabled characters who had also been abused and mentally traumatised to the nth degree.

    Maybe Evelyn Evelyn comes to mind so readily because, like these plush toys, it used mental conditions to woobify its characters and make them appealing in their dependency/neediness – and it’s very interesting that the plush toy manufacturers actually state that intention when they describe how the vulnerability of the toy characters is compelling.

    So… looking at other, people-with-mental-conditions-are-BAD-and-SCARY! depictions, I feel like I have to decide, is it better to be feared and inched way from, or woobified? I can’t say I’ve got an answer…

  9. I didn’t know they also sold stuffed toys for the game now. I’ve played the game (also after they added more animals). It’s completely based on cure. You have to cure the animals and you can do all kinds of stuff to them that they don’t agree to or enjoy to make it happen. I remember there being an autistic or autistic-ish animal too. Which can be cured. Through therapy. And it was caused by their owner being distant or something. *sighs*. You can also make the animals worse. Then they can never leave the asylum. But hey! You were trying to help them, so who cares?