World News

08.14.13

Amnesty International U.K. Board Chairman Resigns Over Crude Jokes

Are jokes about schizophrenia funny? How about when they’re coming from the chairman of the Amnesty International U.K. board? Nico Hines reports on Ciarnan Helferty’s stunning jibes—and forced resignation.

The chairman of the board of Amnesty International U.K. has been forced to resign after making an extraordinary series of jokes about people with mental health conditions.

A spokeswoman for Amnesty, one of the world’s leading human rights organizations, confirmed on Tuesday that Ciarnan Helferty had resigned from his post a month after his crude online observations were published by the Political Scrapbook website.

Helferty had joked on Twitter about people needing to be hospitalized under mental health legislation and made several remarks about schizophrenia, though his organization has promoted campaigns against mental health discrimination. “Too often, prejudice and stigma hamper the development of mental health policies, and are reflected in poor services, low status for care providers and a lack of human rights for mentally ill people,” read a statement on Amnesty’s website.

The chairman apparently took a more relaxed approach to the stigma of mental health conditions. “I’ve decided to enter that BBC TV singing contest for schizophrenics—The Voices,” he tweeted in May. Three days later he returned to the subject: “My mate Jim says I’m schizophrenic, which is weird because I don’t have a mate called Jim.”

A few weeks later the target of his bombast had been expanded to all mental health patients. “Being popular online is like sitting at the cool table in the canteen…In a mental hospital,” he wrote.

Mental health campaigners and sufferers said they were appalled by the remarks. “Reading Ciarnan Helferty’s jokes made me feel physically sick,” said Katy Gray, 25, who suffers from schizophrenia. “It brought back horrendous memories of the days when my paranoia made me believe that everyone was laughing at me.”

Gray, who created the mental health magazine Still Here, said she was relieved Helferty had left Amnesty. “I welcome both his apology and his resignation, and I believe that it is right that he leaves Amnesty International,” she said. “They do fantastic work across the world, and I would hate for their reputation to be damaged by his insensitive jokes.”

Jokes about mental health could have a serious impact on sufferers, said Steve Vetzner, a spokesman for Mental Health America. “It produces shame and embarrassment, and serves to prevent people seeking treatment,” he said. “It’s wrong from a human rights perspective, stigmatizes and marginalizes people.”

Helferty’s jokes “brought back horrendous memories of the days when my paranoia made me believe that everyone was laughing at me.”

Helferty resigned on Monday after submitting himself to Amnesty International’s internal standards procedures. Asked why Amnesty International U.K. had not acted decisively to fire him on its own terms, a spokeswoman said he had already referred himself for investigation under the Board Code of Conduct. “There are processes to ensure that everyone gets a hearing no matter what the circumstances,” she told me. “The end of this story is that he has tendered his resignation.”

In a letter to leading Amnesty International activists, vice chairman Sarah O’Grady said “remarks of this nature are not appropriate” but was lavish in her praise for the outgoing chairman.

“In resigning, Ciarnan has demonstrated personal integrity and responsibility,” she wrote. “Ciarnan has made a truly outstanding contribution to AIUK as a Board member for the past 5 years and as Chair of the Board since May 2011.”

Asked for comment, Helferty said: “I’d be grateful if you can get in touch with the AIUK press office for anything else you might need.” He also suggested on Twitter that he was intending to continue to work closely with the organization. “I won’t b going too far so hopefully see you at the next AGM,” he tweeted to a friend.

Ceri, 29, who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and asked that her last name not be used, said ill-informed jokes about mental health are infuriating. Noting that Helferty had tweeted, “I think we should all remember that whilst there is no I in team…there are two Is in Schizophrenia,” she said: “He had some silly ideas like schizophrenia being a ‘split personality,’ which it isn’t. Instead of resigning, I would rather he used his undoubted commitment and expertise in human rights to get together with people like Rethink or the Hearing Voices Network, and learn and share more helpful things about schizophrenia.”