MENTAL HEALTH

Crickets in the subway: The worst way to raise awareness about mental illness?

(Zaida Pugh/Facebook)

(Zaida Pugh/Facebook)

The New York Post reported that a woman riding the D train unleashed a box full of live crickets and worms into the subway car at rush hour on August 24th. Initial reports suggested that the woman appeared to suffer from a mental illness, and that someone bumped into her or pushed her, sending the creepy crawlies flying everywhere.

Chaos ensued, with passengers yelling and crying and running through the car to get away from the bugs. Someone pulled the emergency brake, stranding the train in one spot for the next thirty minutes and trapping commuters inside the bug-infested car, as the woman banged on windows, carried on erratically, and then peed herself. Eventually, emergency services arrived and escorted the woman to the hospital to be evaluated. “It was pandemonium,” one witness told the Post. “It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen on a train.”

Prepare yourself, because we’re about to get to the actual worst and most unsettling part of this already unbelievable story.

A day or so after The Cricketing, reporters at Fusion discovered a suspiciously produced video from inside the train (see below), documenting the entire event from various angles. They contacted the woman who had posted the video to Facebook—Zaida Pugh, 21—and she eventually confessed: The whole thing had been a hoax. An elaborate piece of performance art, meant to raise awareness about how people react when they see someone with a mental illness. Pugh told Fusion: “I did this to show how people react to situations with homeless people and people with mental health. How they’re more likely to pull out their phone than help.”

Pugh also told Fusion that she has done over 50 similar “pranks,” and that she enjoys doing them because she likes the reactions from people when they go viral. Which, as far as motives go, is certainly more believable than the nod to raising awareness about mental health issues.

Let’s pretend for one second that Pugh actually did want to raise awareness about society’s treatment of people with mental illness. This should probably (right?) go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: Pretending to have a mental illness and unleashing crickets and chaos on unsuspecting commuters is a terrible way to do that! Not only is it sociopathic, but it also perpetuates misinformation about people with mental illness—namely, that having a mental illness means you’re dangerous or a threat to society.

The truth is that people with severe mental illness like the kind Pugh was pretending to have are much more at risk from the public than the public is from them. Consider: People with severe and untreated mental illness are 2.7 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than people in the general population, according to a study that looked at 331 patients with severe psychiatric disorders in the four months after they’d received psychiatric hospitalization.

And another thing: Having a mental illness doesn’t naturally make someone dangerous. Yes, people with mental illnesses are disproportionately represented in the prison population. But remember what you know about correlation and causation, and think about why that may be. One possibility: Untreated mental illness can make basic self-care and functioning significantly more difficult, which can lead to conditions—like poverty, unemployment, homelessness—that may ultimately give rise to criminal behavior.

Another study supports this line of reasoning: The researchers looked at crimes committed by people with severe mental illnesses and found that the vast majority of the crimes weren’t caused by the mental illness itself. Instead, the people had committed those crimes likely because of those other factors—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and substance abuse. Only between 4 and 10% of the crimes evaluated in the study were attributed to the actual mental illness as the cause—meaning that mental illness is correlated with criminal behavior, but in the majority of cases doesn’t directly cause it. The study authors argue in their conclusion that the findings show that to reduce recidivism, it’s not enough to just treat a person’s mental illness; you also need to help people cope with those other underlying factors as well.

It’s good and important to raise awareness about mental illness, and especially to raise awareness about our tragically under-resourced mental healthcare system. But pretending to have a mental illness and then causing chaos and fear is the opposite way to do that. It reinforces the idea that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, perpetuating stigma about mental illness in general—stigma that prevents people from reaching out to get help they need, out of shame and fear. All terrible things.

Bottom line: Don’t unleash crickets on trains, people.