Mental health campaigners including former Downing Street adviser Alastair Campbell heavily criticised Sir Brian Souter last night, after the bus tycoon used a speech to an investment conference to tell jokes about paranoia and schizophrenia.
Sir Brian, a keynote speaker at yesterday’s “EIE14” technology forum in Edinburgh, told the audience that the phone remained an important tool for communicating with customers, despite the growing popularity of the internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
He said that whenever he phoned a company, “I hate these machines where you’ve got to keep pressing the buttons” before being able to speak to a human being.
“I wonder what would happen if you had an answerphone system for a psychiatric hotline. What would it sound like?” ‘Hello, welcome to the psychiatric hotline. If you are obsessive compulsive, press 1 repeatedly. If you are codependent, ask someone else to press 2. If you have multiple personalities, press 3, 4, 5 and 6.
“If you are paranoid delusional, we know who you are and what you want; stay on the line and we’ll trace your call. If you are schizophrenic, listen carefully and a little voice will tell you which buttons to press’.”
Although Sir Brian’s comments were greeted with laughter, one delegate tweeted that he “had to walk out” of the conference at the Assembly Rooms in response to the routine.
Euan Mackenzie, of Edinburgh-based software and technology company 1partCarbon, later told The Scotsman: “I’m totally amazed that a group of well-educated people can still sit in a room and listen to poorly constructed jokes about mental health. I don’t understand how, in this day and age, people can get away with it and nobody stands up against it.”
Mr Campbell, an ambassador for Time to Change, a campaign aimed at tackling the stigma of mental illness, said: “One of the reasons mental illness continues to be surrounded by stigma and taboo is because of the peddling of stereotypes, and his so-called joke is full of them.
“You have to wonder what goes on in his own mind to think either that it is funny or a good way of making the point he was trying to make.
“If he reflects on what he said, he might think of making a large donation to the many mental health services which are currently being cut, including telephone hotlines which save people’s lives.”
Norman Lamb MP, minister for care and support at Westminster, said: “I’m appalled that someone in Brian Souter’s position can say this. This attitude towards mental health belongs in a past age. He may want to make a donation to Time to Change.”
Judith Robertson, director of mental health campaign See Me, said: “We’d like to make Sir Brian aware that for people living with a mental health problem, and those who support them, comments of this nature will only be heard and understood as hurtful and stigmatising.”
However, Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, which counts American comedian Ruby Wax among its patrons, stopped short of condemning the entrepreneur’s comments. She said: “The day we stop being able to have any humour about the subject of mental illness is the day that stigma has won.”