Ciarnan Helferty at Amnesty International UK conference

UPDATE: Ciarnan Helferty has now referred himself to Amnesty UK internal standards procedures. Full story here.

The chair of Britain’s number-one human rights organisation has made a string of mental health jokes on social media, Political Scrapbook can reveal. Despite Amnesty International’s stance on mental health stigma, the chair of its UK board Ciarnan Helferty has filled his Twitter feed with off-colour gags about schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder:

Ciarnan Helferty mental health jokes

It’s not as though mental health isn’t on the human rights radar, as Amnesty UK’s own website reports:

“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.”

One wonders what his colleagues in the Republic of Ireland — who are running a campaign on mental health discrimination — make of Helferty’s “humour”, not to mention his employers at the British Medical Association.

Amnesty International mental health campaign

The childish manner in which Helferty comports himself on social media all the more galling given his responsibilities for the stewardship of Amnesty International UK during a controversial restructuring which has seen jobs and budgets slashed.

Time for some of that “accountability” he mentioned.

  1. Oh for pity’s sake. As someone who has suffered from severe depession on and off for years I feel I need to say “grow up”
    his comments on twitter were fine(some of which I had seen on my timeline…and giggled at too)..if I had been offended I could just stop following.
    im more interested in the actual job he does than his twitter feed.
    its people like you that deflect things away from the real need to overcome discrimination and onto trivial stuff like thus…but that, of course is exactly what the prejudiced want! Well done

  2. Disagree. Just because you’re happy to tolerate such jokes doesn’t mean that others with MH problems are. Also, it’s how such jokes are taken by the public at large which matters. Jokes belittling serious MH conditions is likely to increase prejudice and reduce support for resources for MH issues.

    Of course it doesn’t help that several of the ‘jokes’ are based on the myth that schizophrenia = multiple personalities.

    There is a place for gallows humour. Often those of us with MH probs have this to a fine tuned degree. However that place is not the Twitter feed of the head of a major human rights organisation.

    PS am assuming he hasn’t been hacked?

  3. black humour in the face of something awful is a release – no blood no report (I can appreciate the OCD ones having a touch myself)
    if Ciarnan Helferty has castigated others for mocking afflicted people then its hypocrisy and thats another beast indeed

  4. Sliver surfer says:

    What an exclusive. Someone we don’t know makes mildly amusing/offensive jokes whilst also being involved with a group who do good work. Clearly this means Amneaty must think this too, being well known for their stand up routines.

  5. Firstly, as someone who used to work for Amnesty, black humour is a major survival requirement when you spend the day wading through the worst of humanity. Secondly, I don’t know Ciarnan and I assume no-one else here does either – so can anyone say for certain that he doesn’t have mental health issues himself? If he does, wouldn’t that put a slightly different spin on things?

  6. It’s hard to know what the context is from those tweets. If he was just making “hur hur mad people are funny” jokes out of nowhere, that isn’t very nice and is unprofessional. However, if he suffers with mental illness himself, and the tweets are within a context where they might make more sense, it’s different.

    Having said that, I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety for most of my life, but I wouldn’t make fun of schizophrenics, because I don’t have experience of that, so it wouldn’t be fair.

  7. Giuliettista says:

    So, let me get this straight…the gist of the discussion on here so far (and my response)is:

    ‘He deals with a lot of shit in his everyday job, so it’s all right for him to let off steam by making jokes about mentally ill people’

    Oh, that’s all right then. If I’d known that doing a stressful job (for a left-wing organisation) allowed you to ignore the general rules, which if crossed by right wingers would have the left frothing at the mouth…

    ‘I suffer from mental illness and it doesn’t bother me, so why should it offend others’

    Which is like, many years ago when I was at school, my local newsagent saying he wasn’t REALLY offended by those ‘paki’ jokes. I have suffered from mental illness (severe depression) on and off for over 20 years, and while the jokes did not offend me as such, what offends me is the idea amongst those without metal illness that it is somehow something to make light of.

    ‘He made some ill-advised jokes, but the body he works for (nay, leads) does a lot of good work’

    I eagerly await Sir Trevor Phillips collaboration with Jim Davidson on a new joke book, too.

  8. Knowing Ciarnan personally, and from his twitter feed it’s pretty obvious that whilst somewhat ill-advised sometimes he’s fairly equal opportunities when it comes to his sometimes bleak sense of humour.

    He’s also a deeply kind, compassionate and charitable guy.

  9. Just had a look through his twitter account… and it’s funny. You can hardly say they are malicious or designed to offend, they are mainly puns, word play and mis-direction. I think this is all a bit much, seems we are so PC sometimes that we risk losing good and generous people because they made a risque joke or go mildly off message. And what’s more, making a subject ‘off-limits’ to comedy or humour or ridicule does just as much to stigma as the abject silence the PC whiter than white lot create. And finally – here’s a thought, if you don’t like his jokes or find him funny, don’t follow him. Simple.

  10. As an amnesty member I met Ciarnan at their AGM this year and he was the opposite if the robots you often see in these positions. he was genuine, sardonic and committed. Noticed you omitted to mention that the ‘controversial restructure’ he oversaw which saw ‘jobs and budgets slashed’ was voted for by us at that AGM and, because of the work ciarnan did, we will see AIUK contribute an extra £1m every year for human rights work in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Money very well spent if you ask me. He worked extraordinarily hard to make this possible and whatever you think about his sense of humour, he’s a decent and committed guy who volunteers (ie unpaid) his time to support amnesty in addition to whatever else he does in his life. If this post is about his jokes, make it about them and don’t conflate things to try and muddy his reputation. It’s unfair.

  11. Why is Amnesty Ireland campaigning about mental health? Have they run out of political prisoners to support?

  12. He used to work for NUS; nice guy by all accounts. he’s gotten funnier anyway. And as it’s his personal account whats the big deal?

  13. Ciarnan is a lovely, compassionate guy. I think it speaks volumes that he has been so swift to quickly and unreservedly apologise, and has referred himself to Amnesty’s disciplinary system for board members. He has made a mistake, but he has not hid from it.

  14. Think you might have picked the wrong target on this one, the guy seems genuinely decent and contrite. Even though he clearly hasn’t done anything wrong (apart from have a questionable sense of humour) he has referred himself for investigation in an otangaion for which he volunteer gives of his time and energy. Meanwhile you even manage to report the fact he has decided to out himself under investigation with a glib and unpleasant angle. There is a point where your just mean.

  15. I have OCD and have suffered from clinical depression in the past, but I don’t find any of those postings offensive. Indeed, I even find a few of them mildly amusing. But then I have a sense of humour, and perhaps I have a thicker skin than some people. A lot of people in this country seem to be all too ready to take offence at every little thing.

  16. These jokes are in the same bracket as racist, sexist, homophobic jokes. Sadly, as people with schizophrenia tend to be less powerful and voiceless than the other ‘isms’, it seems fair game. Not acceptable by any public figure to mock in this way, let alone someone committed to social justice and human rights. Mental health is way behind other area equality concerns in securing dignity. Jokes from someone in his position puts it even further back.

  17. Couldn’t disagree more. The reason there is so much stigma attached to mental health is because its never talked about, never really features in much fiction or tv and yes… Because its deemed to be completely acceptable in comedy. If you really want to stigmatise something, do what your doing now and run all the people who make jokes out of town. I had a look at his twitter…there are thousands of jokes of which these are just a couple. He doesn’t focus particularly on mental health, but doesn’t ignore it either. He’s a funny guy and clearly there is no malice in his comedy- most of which is self deprecating.

  18. This is a petty and nasty piece of pseudo-journalism which does nothing but harm the reputation of Political Scrapbook. A cursory reading of the tweets in this purported exposé reveal that Mr Helferty has a self-deprecatory sense of humour. Not one of his jokes indicates that he harbours ill-feeling or discriminatory attitudes in respect of people with disabilities of any kind. This grubby piece by Political Scrapbook is so over-the-top that one has to question hits motivation. Could it be that Political Scrapbook pounced on a few forgotten tweets, tore them out of chronology, then pasted them onto their website because they wanted to harm Ciarnan Helferty because he steered the board of Amnesty UK through a very difficult period of restructuring? Could that explain why this website has sought about this young man’s reputation as if he were an unconvicted Nazi war criminal? This article/campaign by Political Scrapbook is so ludicrously overstated that I’m embarrassed to have associated myself with it, albeit indirectly, by commenting on this execrably vindictive assault on a self-evidently decent and good-natured person.

  19. Fubar Saunders says:

    You can guarantee though that had someone from the coalition or anywhere right of the political centre made these remarks, that he and the rest of the looney liberal left would have been all over them like a rash.

    All well and good for him and his supporters to say grow up and learn how to take a joke – but just don’t be hypocritical about it. I would wage a pound to a pinch of s**t that had this come from Boris, or Farage or Gove or anyone like that, he would have been going off on one.

    Thats what really jacks me off about these liberal lefty do gooders. Do one thing and say another.

  20. Are you seriously suggesting there is any comparability between an elected MP who is a public servant and is paid to do their job and someone who volunteers their time for no payment in a membership organisation?? I suppose actual difference is that this guy apologised straight up and referred himself for investigation. That’s just what Gove did when it was discovered his office was posting bile in order to discredit people on twitter wasn’t it? Oh wait, no, he didn’t. Or when Farage paid all that money back after claiming to have been screwing the EU on allowances? Oh wait, he didn’t. Or when boris was caught out for cheating, lying etc… He was contrite and humble. Oh wait, he wasn’t. This guys problem seems to be a slightly risqué sense of humour which is hardly the most damning thing. And if anyway is so pious as to prentend they havn’t laughed at an inappropriate joke of found a bit of black humour amusing then I wouldn’t trust them. They are either humourless or a liar.

  21. How much I do not agree with some of the comments, it concerns me to how long it actually took for this to be highlighted. I see some comments as old as 3 years!

    Is this a plot in targeting Ciaran?
    Ciaran has worked and continues to work hard for everything he is involved in. Rather than target, why not encourage the way to go and support that cause.

    Working together is better, than attacking one another.

  22. 3 years old? That pre-dates his time in his position then does it not? Looks a bit like some things in this story weren’t fully explored. Whether intentionally or not, I leave it up to others to decide.


    I couldn’t disagree more with the idea humour contributes to the stigmatization of mental health. For something to be stigmatized is to make it a subject never breached, never discussed, avoided, hidden away. The process of de-stigmatizing is therefore one in which we feel comfortable and open about it, talk about it, discuss it and yes, even laugh about it. If his comments were malicious or clearly designed to offend then maybe you might have a case here, but that is not the case – at best you can accuse him of a poor sense of humour. You have only to have a quick glance through his other tweets to see that there are 9 out of thousands and thousands of tweet on this subject spanning more than 3 years. It feel a bit to me therefore that the timing in all this is suspect. is it that someone has a bit of a grudge against Mr Helferty and that PS is dancing to their tune?


    I am a member of amnesty International and want to say that I am offended; Not by the content and sense of humour he displays in his personal twitter account (in which is clearly says that the comments are personal… i.e Not those of amnesty) but by what feel like something of a witch hunt. He is a volunteer with amnesty, he does this work without payment, in his own time. He has his own job and life outside and aside from amnesty – clearly his social media accounts are these… How do I know this? Because he took the time to tell us so on them! Using one of those ‘personal comments’ disclaimers that I used to think were a bit stupid and redundant -because no one is really that stupid that they would inflate the two. How wrong I was. He doesn’t his twitter as a platform for his amnesty role, he doesn’t use it as an official amnesty account and from what I can see never has.

  25. Giuliettista (comment above) deals well with many of the poor defences being peddled in this thread:

    Here my responses to some of the others — which mostly take the form “It’s okay for the chair of Amnesty to make mental health jokes because …”

    “This is a voluntary, unpaid role.”
    We’re not writing about a junior member staff, or someone who volunteers a few hours in a charity shop. Helferty is the chair of the board. This is a role with massive responsibilities and significant perks too.

    “It’s his personal Twitter account.”
    This is an arbitrary distinction, the implication of which is that people in positions of responsibility can say what they like provided the account is labelled as “personal” (which incidentally Helferty’s was not). Twitter is a public forum in which people in positions of responsibility can be held to account for what they say.

    “Some of the comments are old.”
    The oldest ones are from May and July 2010. The rest are from his time as chair and the most recent are from this month. There were two schizophrenia jokes in May this year.

    “You’ve taken a few comments out of context”
    This isn’t the case of one or two messages and has continued throughout his time as chair.

    “I met him. He’s a nice bloke so leave him alone.”
    Plenty of people who are otherwise decent do idiotic things. But that doesn’t absolve them from responsibility if they errr badly.

    “Why are you covering this? It’s not a story.”
    Pull the other one.

    A lot of the comments here are hypocrisy from people who either know Helferty personally or can’t bear the thought of the chair of a liberal/progressive organisation being held to account in this way. We received the same reaction from many on Twitter. Commenter “Fubar Sanders” is right:

    You can guarantee though that had someone from the coalition or anywhere right of the political centre made these remarks, that he and the rest of the … liberal left would have been all over them like a rash.

    That people are now sockpuppeting in his defence speaks volumes.

  26. Whilst there’s little to say in defense of the guy there’s plenty to say on the attack against this sort of cheap journalism, often penned by those whose only real skill on display is an inexplicable ability to press keys in the correct order rather than, god forbid, actually think about an issue.

    As someone who’s suffered recurring, seemingly random severe bouts of depression throughout my life I don’t find the jokes to be particularly offensive, some even elicited a small chuckle. Yes, they’re “off-colour” but I hardly think he’s encouraging a stigma of mental illness.

    If anything the message here is that the do-good brigades which spring up around issues such as these have far more interest in scoring points for their careers &/or ego’s than in doing anything meaningful.
    On the subject of stigmas, perhaps what we can take away from this particular useless diatribe journalism is that “this subset of people are weak, pathetic & unable to defend themselves appropriately, thus it’s only fitting for us to spring to their defense in the most ridiculous of ways. Because, after all, it’s only right we assume the opinions of this subset are in line with our own…what, with their inability to properly express themselves & everything”. That, my friends, seems more like a stigma than those alluded to in the article above.

    So sally forth, brave keyboard knights! Onward to defend the weak & the vulnerable from their own opinions!

  27. Another comment from me (not sockpuppeting, I hope!). I regularly hear politicians deriding another politician’s proposed policy as “madness”. Similarly, I hear people in debates of all kinds saying a particular argument is “mad” or “delusional” – or even “nuts”. These kinds of terms are commonplace. So, what’s the issue here? I think using language or humour to deride or disparage people with disabilities is utterly unacceptable. But not all references of terms relating to mental illness involve or imply disparagement or abuse. In the case of Ciarnan Helferty, I can see no evidence of disparagement, abuse, or attempts (even unwitting or accidental attempts) to belittle or stigmatise people with disabilities. Perhaps some people think he crossed a red line because his jokes made reference to specific conditions rather than using more generalised language. Note, though, that even in these cases, he was not making fun of those conditions; he was making a joke about himself with reference to those conditions. I’ve read a number of comments from people with those conditions who have not been offended or sensed any disparagement, stereotyping or stigmatisation in the comments. Language can be a complicated business, and we’ve all got much to learn about how to use language more carefully and more responsibly. But this case – a few tweeted lines clearly aimed at self-parody – is not the best case to take aim at. This thread, however, does make a good case for everyone calming down a bit.

  28. Right on, right off says:

    I have to say I’m glad he’s resigned. I have bi-polar and my brother has schizophrenia. The issue here is not whether the jokes were funny or not. It’s whether it’s ok at all to joke about schizophrenia means you are in two minds, and all the other jokes he’s tried to make.

    I don’t think it is, ok, ever. At best it’s lazy and at worst it just reinforces negative stereotypes – the kind that organisations like Amnesty are meant to be fighting. You might as well make jokes about how ‘funny’ wheelchair users are if they try to get on a bus, or how Jewish people are somehow tight with money. Neither are these are ok either, in my book.

    By all means, joke about mental health and illness if you have it, and are laughing at your own experiences. But don’t try for cheap laughs from others’ distress. Just isn’t cool, clever or funny.

  29. Hello
    I’ve had schizo affective disorder for the past 12 years. I’d rather people makes jokes about it than what the press usually say about us.

    One of the only pleasures I get is laughing at the symptoms of my illness (lots of cliche cognition)

    Compare the above with what you usually hear about mental health issues.

    You can never insult me as much as my wonky cognition and thoughts!

    “I’m writing a book on living with Schizophrenia.

    It’s actually the unauthorised biography of myself. ”

    “don’t take life too seriously no one gets out alive”


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