By Bronte Cook
CN: stigma, graphic and stigmatising
images of mental illness, slurs, suicide,
self-harm, knives, eating disorders,
schizophrenia, dissociation, detainment,
intrusive thoughts, mania, hallucinations
In 2013 Asda withdrew a ‘mental patient’ costume after receiving complaints of insensitivity and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. ‘Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume’, the product description promised. It went on to outline that the costume was ‘comprising a torn bloodstained shirt, bloodstained plastic meat cleaver and gory face mask’. In the same year, Tesco withdraw a boiler suit with the words ‘Psycho Ward’ printed on the chest from their shelves after similar complaints were heard. Unfortunately, these are not stand-alone instances. There is the ‘Anna Rexia’ costume, a skeleton printed onto a black dress, with a tape measure around its waist, and the ‘skitzo’ costume including shackles, restraints and a mask.
Yes, mental illnesses can be scary; for the sufferer. Their symptoms can include intense paranoia, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, manic episodes, depressive periods, dissociation, hearing voices; this is by no means an exhaustive list. Those who suffer with mental illnesses are far more of a risk to themselves than they are to others. Anorexia can be used as an example here; The Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health found that the mortality rate for those suffering with anorexia nervosa was 5%, with as much as 40% of these deaths being sufferers taking their own lives.
72% of patients also reported engaging in non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), or self-harm. Not only this, but figures from Time to Change, the national charity for destigmatising mental health, estimate that 45% of those with severe mental illnesses are victims of crime each year. It is clear from these figures alone that the image of mental health patients as dangerous to society and therefore worthy of being depicted in a Halloween costume is severely misguided and offensive.
It may be argued that this trend to dress as a mental health patient, or as somebody suffering from a mental illness is merely a trivial joke and that offence should not be so easily taken. However, the way we depict and discuss mental health, even if intended in a trivial way, does not exist within a vacuum. Instead it exists in a society in which Time to Change report that 90% of those with mental health problems have faced stigma at some point in their lives, in relation to their mental health. It exists in a society in which we have a Mental Health Act and accompanying law that is heavily focused on public protection, whilst arguably under-valuing the autonomy and integrity of those who are suffering themselves.
According to Mind, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year. If you are ‘trick or treating’ in a mental health based costume, keep in mind that you may be seriously upsetting a quarter of the people’s doors you knock on. If you’re off on a Halloween night out in one of these costumes, be aware that you may be ruining someone else’s night by trivialising their lived experience, and making a monster out of them.