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Take Mental Health Stigma Out of Halloween

Updated on April 13, 2015

Would You Wear a "Cancer Patient" Costume?

Of course the answer to the question presented above is "NO!". Why would anyone poke fun at or make light of an illness that is so serious? The same question applies to mental health issues. The World Health Organization reports that mental illness results in more disability in many countries than any other group of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease. Mental health illnesses are just as real and just as serious as cancer, mortality rates included, yet why does society still find it necessary to make light of them and even make fun of them?

On this page we will look at some common themes of Halloween, question their intent, and implore people to fight back against mental health stigma as exacerbated and perpetuated by specific Halloween themes. I love the holiday as much as the next guy, but just as we don't make light of cancer, let's also not make light of serious mental health issues that affect a very large portion of the world's population. Such stigma and false representation of mental health illnesses is offensive, insensitive, irresponsible, callous, and just plain dangerous. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that nearly 2/3 of people with mental illnesses live in silence and do not seek necessary treatment, largely out of the fear of embarrassment that stigma and ignorance cause. Think of the high suicide rate in people with certain mental illnesses and ask yourself if you really want to be a part of perpetuating the stigma that deters people from getting the treatment they need in order to live healthy lives. Together, we can take mental health stigma out of an otherwise fun holiday - Halloween!

Photo credit: Creative Commons For other image credits on this page, roll over image.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.

— Bill Clinton

Recent Uproar over Asda and Tesco Costumes that Stigmatize Mental Illness

Picture Credit: thegloss.com, via CC
Picture Credit: thegloss.com, via CC

On Wednesday, September 25, 2013, British companies Asda and Tesco underwent a Twitter-storm of criticism over their Halloween costumes labeled "Mental Patient" and "Psycho Ward". The picture above is of Asda's "Mental Patient" costume. Twitter blew up with people posting their "Mental Patient" costumes. I posted this picture of my super-scary mental patient costume, complete with a successful mother-of-4 look:

Photo Credit: myself, Meridith Zelaya
Photo Credit: myself, Meridith Zelaya

**Notice I'm not wearing a blood-spattered straightjacket nor toting a meat cleaver.**

Asda and Tesco pulled both costumes off their shelves, undoubtedly to save face, and Asda pledged to donate a chunk of money to a mental health organization. The question is, why would any company even think about making such inaccurate and insensitive costumes in the first place? This is just plain callous and irresponsible. Do they not know that almost half of the U.S. population has or will have some type of mental illness during their lives? Since many people still think of people with mental illness as cleaver-toting "crazy" people, doesn't it make sense that many individuals, including our precious children and teens, are afraid to talk about mental health problems they may be having and fail to seek needed treatment?

Please click on the links below to read more about the recent Asda and Tesco story:

Nothing Says "Halloween" Like Costumes That Stigmatize Mental Illness!

Asda, offensive halloween costumes and mental health stigma

Asda and Tesco withdraw Halloween patient outfits (BBC News)

2 Big Supermarkets Apologize After Backlash about "Mental Patient" Costumes

Photo Credit: Meridith Zelaya
Photo Credit: Meridith Zelaya

Don't Choose a Costume that Reinforces Dangerous Stigmas

I am not a prude. My kids dressed up as bloody zombies last year. There they are over there on the right. My point is that it is insensitive and irresponsible to dress in a costume that reinforces a dangerous stigma. The U.S. Office of the Surgeon General reports that stigma represents one of the greatest barriers to people who need help for mental illness. Costumes that incorrectly label real people with real illnesses and words and terms that stereotype people like "psycho", "crazy", "wacko", "loony bin", "schizo" and others discourage people from speaking out and getting help. Imagine the effect on our young people!

"Why You Shouldn't Go 'Crazy' This Halloween" by Katie Kerns on Everydayhealth.com is a great article that talks more about avoiding Halloween costumes that stigmatize mental illnesses.

Haunted Houses and Mental Health Stigma

Photo credit: burzinski, via cc
Photo credit: burzinski, via cc

I personally love haunted houses, and the scarier, the better. However, using mental health issues to scare people and to make a profit is WRONG.

Recently I ran across a blog post entitled "I'm So Angry!" , written by a well-known and quite talented blogger who is also a parent of a child with bipolar disorder. The post described a story that I will summarize here, but please read the full blog post by clicking on the link provided above:

Last year a haunted house near the author's hometown featured disturbing characters and scenes involving real-life mental health issues. One of the scenes depicted a young girl cutting herself with the words "no more pain" written in blood somewhere near her. Knives, broken glass, and other sharp objects surrounded her. Another scene at this particular haunted house featured a sign that read "Med Station" and young children waiting in line. The author of the blog mentioned in the post that her community has a high suicide rate. Imagine the indecency, the callousness, and just plain stupidity of the people who came up with these ideas and actually carried through with them. Can you imagine taking your children into this haunted house? Imagine how it would affect them. Imagine the real children and teens who do cut themselves in real life because of a chemical imbalance that they cannot control.

The author of the post goes on to say that she talked to the director of the haunted house, who genuinely seemed apologetic and concerned. However, this year this same haunted house advertised that they were featuring a "Maze of Madness" that they deemed appropriate for kids aged 10 and up. The author again spoke to someone in charge at the haunted house, who seemed proud of or at least tickled by the fact that this year's attraction featured more than one straight jacket.

Just a Few Examples of How Hard Mental Illness Can Be... - ...even without adding stigma to the mix.

Step by step, we will break this cycle of silence, poor information and stigma.

— Chevy Chase

Thanks for Visiting - Fight Mental Health Stigma!

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    • merfzel profile image
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      merfzel 4 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @shauna1934: :) thanks :)

    • shauna1934 profile image

      shauna1934 4 years ago

      Rockin' successful mom of 4 mental patient costume! That's one I'd buy (having been a mental health patient myself).

    • KathyZ1 profile image

      KathyZ1 4 years ago

      Great lens, enjoy it.

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 4 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @Erin Mellor: Seriously! Like one of the comments on this page, people look the other way instead of speaking out... unfortunate, and actually kinda wimpy, if you ask me.

    • Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 4 years ago from Europe

      I really couldn't understand how the supermarkets got themselves into this pickle. I know the costumes are made in China, but someone had to order them, stock them, put them on the website etc, surely at some point someone thought "hey, this isn't right".

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 4 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @Zhana21: Yes they do, and people believe it. I spend a lot of my time trying to spread the truth so that people will discontinue believing these untruths! Thanks for the visit, like, and comment :)

    • Zhana21 profile image

      Zhana 4 years ago

      Great lens. Thanks very much for posting this. I have suffered with mental health issues for many years, but I am not an axe-murderer (as far as I am aware). The media often stereotype the mentally ill as dangerous.

    • Coffee-Break profile image

      Dorian Bodnariuc 4 years ago from Ottawa, Ontario Canada

      Great subject to write on. Kudos! many times people do not understand mental illness, and they mock it because of ignorance, I have met people with mentally challenged people that are more pleasant to have around than the mentally sane.

    • verymary profile image

      Mary 4 years ago from Chicago area

      Costumes can definitely skirt the edges of taste & sensitivity. Sometime's it's just the labeling. I really dislike that top costume pictured, but it could just be killed "Bloody Villain" or something. (Still disgusting, of course...)

      Good topic, handled well.

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 4 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @GrammieOlivia: Thank you!!

    • profile image

      GrammieOlivia 4 years ago

      A subject close to my heart too! Congratulations and well done.

    • MelanieKaren profile image

      Melanie Wilcox 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      very, very well done :)

    • TapIn2U profile image

      TapIn2U 4 years ago

      Great read! Love your lens. Sundae ;-)

    • JohnTannahill profile image

      John Tannahill 4 years ago from Somewhere in England

      I was going to mention the Tesco and Asda costumes but you already did. I used to work for the National Health Service in the UK and my office just happened to be in a psychiatric hospital. It even had a secure section. I never saw anyone dressed like that. By the way, Asda = Walmart in the UK. It's an American company so there! Tesco isn't though.

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 4 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @Lady Lorelei: Most people DO turn a blind eye... that is the point of this lens. Turning a blind eye to young children cutting themselves and stigma being perpetuated is something I and many other people simply won't do any longer, because it is wrong. Taking these serious and dangerous REAL issues that plague our society with a grain of salt IS being done and does not create positive change in the world....hence, my point.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      Dr. Frankenstein really threw mental illness into this holiday and there seems to be no looking back. I think that Halloween really must be taken with a grain of salt. Last year there was much anger over a person who did a lens on native costumes. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid touching a nerve somewhere. I find murder, bloody images, and anything related to the paranormal to be terrifying but at Halloween I try to turn a blind eye in that direction. It is a holiday that revolves around death and that encompasses many themes.

    • merfzel profile image
      Author

      merfzel 4 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      @BritFlorida: Thank you!

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Absolutely well done! I heard about the English supermarket situation when the story broke. I have never liked Halloween (it's not really as popular in the UK as it is here so it was never a feature when I was growing up.) Well done for bringing this to everyone's attention. I dislike the Halloween situation immensely and this partially explain why.Huge kudos.