What a Mental Patient Looks Like

As the Earth reached its equinox point in its orbit, as the weather begins to get a little bit chillier, our thoughts turn to Halloween. Ah yes, a holiday of candy, mischief, and costumes. What’s not to love? Well, probably the endless parade of sexist, racist, and downright appalling costumes that leer at buyers from seasonal store shelves. This morning, all was in hubbub about a “mental illness patient” and “psycho ward” costumes sold in the UK. And then, something beautiful happened.

A beer pong table helping the Magic School Bus get his rockets reattached.
A beer pong table helping the Magic School Bus get his rockets reattached.

Halloween is really a great holiday if you are a skeptic. There’s no need to fear ghosties and ghoulies, for time after time the evidence for the supernatural falls flat. But it is an excuse for parties, fun, candy, and some (hopefully) harmless mischief. For the cosplaying geeks among us, well there are a whole stack of costumes to choose from in our closets from conventions past. Even those who only cosplay this one time a year can put together some pretty stunning and clever costumes on the cheap. I’ve been to parties with people dressed as Pacman, telescopes, Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus, and even an astronomer’s Unix terminal window.

Of course, not all of us have the time and creativity necessary to pull off a spectacular costume, and so we raid the stores. This is especially good for parents who want to give their kids a trick-or-treating experience, but just don’t have to time to make a great superhero costume for their little one. Not everyone can make a kick-ass M&M costume like my mom made for me when I was a kid! But if you’re a woman, your choices are “sexy this” and “sexy that” to levels that reach absurdity. On a deeper level, the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign raised awareness of racially insensitive Halloween costumes.

The offending costumes pulled from websites and shelves today.
The offending costumes pulled from websites and shelves today.

This year, the UK-based organization Time to Change has been hard at work to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. You’ve heard the statistics. One in four people will be dealing with mental health issues in any given year, and for many, the stigma of these issues can be as great a burden as the illness itself. So when Asda and Tesco, two supermarket chains, began selling “mental patient” and “psycho ward” costumes, Time to Change spoke out on radio and social media, calling these costumes offensive to the many people struggling with mental illness and mental health stigma.

These costumes associate mental illness with violence right off the bat. Of course, the news in recent weeks (months, years) is ready to make that link as well, de-crying to sale of weapons to people with a history of mental illness who later go on to commit horrible acts of violence. News media, entertainment, and public fears all add to the stigma of mental illness and link violence to it, when it turns out that there are no differences in the percentage of mental illness in those who perpetrate violent crimes, and that, in fact, people with psychiatric disabilities are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than those without such disabilities. The only thing that these attitudes and costumes can do is cause more harm to those already struggling.

Oh look, you can even be a sexy mental patient in a compromising position!
Oh look, you can even be a sexy mental patient in a compromising position!

Tesco and Asda have both promptly pulled the costumes off their shelves, and Asda even gave a charitable donation to one of Time to Change’s parent organizations. has also been targeted by the campaign, but has yet to respond. I have no doubt that American retailers are selling similar such costumes and would benefit from a friendly nudge to take them off the shelves. And we as consumers can reject such ridiculous stereotypes when armed with the facts and be a bit more compassionate about the subject of mental illness.

Well, I started this blog by saying that something beautiful happened. Somewhere along the line of today’s campaign, people began tweeting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #mentalpatient to show off their own”mental patient costumes.” And you know what? There were pictures of everyday people. Some serious, some smiling, some in t-shirts or workout clothes, others in suits or sweaters. These are the people all around us, our neighbors and friends. This is what they look like, not some horror movie reject.

I consider myself a pretty fortunate mental patient. I’ve not been hospitalized, though in some desperate moments I’ve felt it was going to be close. But I’ve gotten amazing care at the Outpatient Psychiatric services at the University of Virginia Health System. I wouldn’t have made it through grad school without a really great psychiatrist and some pretty intensive therapy sessions, along with medication to quell my anxiety disorder. I wouldn’t be out in the world, I wouldn’t be blogging, I wouldn’t be a scientist, I’d probably just be hiding under a rock somewhere. I’ve also been fortunate to have been surrounded by friends with similar mental health struggles and an open environment in which to share them, so I haven’t struggled with the stigma as others have. And I believe that no one should have to.

So, here’s my mental patient outfit. Real scary, I’m sure.



Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee:

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  1. The last time I was hospitalized (hopefully the *last* time) the patient group on my floor consisted of 2 nurses, a soldier, a professional bodybuilder, a college student, a computer programmer, a graphic designer, a musician, a mechanic, and a housewife.
    So, just folks, not so scary. :D

  2. Uh, is this really the case.. are background checks for gun ownership not a good idea? (I guess these should also take into account previous criminal record/violent behaviour, not just mental illness). I know mental illness is now seen as a broad spectrum, and presumably a paranoid schizophrenic is someone who shouldn’t be trusted with guns, while someone “merely” suffering from depression may actually be in a situation where they require a gun to protect themselves, but I’m just confused how this squares up?

    1. Well… I kind of don’t want to touch the political hot-button issue of whether or not we should have background checks. Let’s say, instead, that if one *does* perform a background check, asking, “Have you ever suffered from or been treated for a mental illness?” is not really a good predictor of future gun violence, and thus not very helpful in determining if a person should own a gun or not. And also, we usually consider health information like that to be private, and I’m not a huge fan of the government collecting it. There are other indicators that are far more predictive of gun violence, or even just more specific questions (some of them with similar privacy concerns, some not). A history of violence, substance abuse, or having been charged with domestic violence, for instance.

      I think people see instances of mass gun violence as so scary and irrational, they assume it can only be perpetrated by scary and irrational people, who therefore must be mentally ill by definition. But that’s not really how mental illness is defined, plus most gun violence is not the mass shootings we see on TV. So, using mental illness as a factor in gun control is just not as helpful as I think most people want it to be.

      1. dxman, I was just signing in to reply to your comment and then Karen just chimed in with more or less what I would have said. Thank you, Karen! :-)

        I didn’t bring up background checks specifically because I’m not knowledgable enough on the subject at the moment. However, yes, broadly looking at mental illness as an indicator of violence seems to be off the mark, since 1 in 4 of us would have that blip show up. What and where those specific indicators of violence are and how they intersect with mental illness, I don’t know, but the knee-jerk reaction we all have of “OMG mental illness scary!” is something we need to rethink.

    2. There’s no stigma involved in refusing to sell a potentially suicidal person a means to carry it through. Someone suffering from depression should not be given a gun, just like a blind person shouldn’t be given a driver’s license. If they are given access, their conditions make them a danger to themselves and others, and it’s eminently reasonable for society to step in. This is the very reason we have laws!

      By the same token, we should respect the humanity of a blind person and work to make sure they can participate in society in spite of their condition. We try to understand their condition and compensate as best we can. We should be doing the same for the mentally ill, but the stigma attached to mental illness causes us to shun them.

      This is where we need to improve as a society: recognizing and accepting mental illness, not pretending it just doesn’t exist. Being depressed has real consequences. Increased suicide risk is among those consequences. We have to accept that fact if we want to move forward.

      1. I find it endlessly offensive that people conflate “depression” with “suicidal.” Mentally well people get sad/mad and snap/kill themselves, too, and not all of us depressives are or have ever been suicidal. I have as much right to a gun as the next person, assuming I take a class or something and haven’t killed anyone before.

        1. There is absolutely a link between suicidal thoughts and depression. That’s a reality, not a conflation. If you want people to truly understand this condition, you can’t close your eyes and pretend it’s something different than it is.

          You might not have suicidal thoughts. Maybe there’s even zero risk for you. Maybe there are some who can drive safely at the legal limit of alcohol, too. That’s the difficulty of living in a society and making laws to govern ourselves. We have to weigh the risks and benefits. It’s disappointing that the law isn’t more nuanced, but it can save lives. Sometimes, we have to make individual sacrifices to protect people.

          Also, if it’s “offensive” to be associated with suicidal depressives, you’re stigmatizing mental illness. Just because your symptoms are currently different is no reason to distance yourself from them. The truth is these are poorly understood conditions that are unpredictable and associated. Any of us could find ourselves suffering from them. You can’t rope yourself off

          1. My point is that depression encompasses a wide range of people with varying symptoms at varying stages of management who are already frequently denied certain coverage/benefits for having sought help to make it manageable, and that sweeping generalizations about denying constitutionally granted rights is harmful and offensive and perpetuates the stigma. This is punishing people for taking care of themselves with the intent to protect them from themselves as if they were idiot children. Would you propose banning people with a history of ADD/ADHD from buying guns because their attention might wander in a CHL class or might have wandered in elementary school?

          2. Curious… what are the statistics for suicide and guns? That is, are guns actually a big enough factor or is a suicidal person going to go through with it without that access? Of course, the gun opens up the possibility of perpetrating violence upon others in the act, but that sub-population may have different indicators than for suicidal, non-violent people.

            I realize this is a complex and thorny issue which I why I didn’t specifically address it, but I’m looking to learn.

          3. I will have to look this up when I have more time, but I have read that the availability of guns makes a completed suicide more likely. They don’t make suicidal ideation or attempts more likely, but many people who use less-lethal means end up surviving the attempt and regretting having attempted it. A gun doesn’t generally give people second chances. And I think people who might follow through if they had an easier means, like a gun, don’t follow through because the other means are more complicated and less certain in outcome and that provides more need for forethought, which can be enough time to get past that particular low point. Speaking for myself (and I don’t think I’m alone in this), suicidal ideation ebbs and flows. During my worst depression, I wasn’t suicidal all the time. I just needed to make it through those times when I was.

          4. It’s taken me until this year or so to realize that I suffer from depression. I really didn’t think I did, because I have never been suicidal.

            Because I’m not suicidal, it’s really nearly impossible for me to get any sort of help (I don’t qualify for anything to begin with because I live in AZ).

            Sometimes I fantasize about PRETENDING to be suicidal. So I can maybe seem desperate enough to get help. But that would seriously fuck my life up in ways I probably don’t undrestand, so I don’t do it.

            Trying to get help with depression and anxiety, etc., when you’re not suicidal is the pits.

            (Not that I WANT to be suicdal!)

  3. I just got two letters from a major national denying me short term and long term disability coverage because I’ve been treated for depression in the past. So I’m being punished for taking steps to deal with my problems properly rather than just self medicating. I’m of the opinion that private health insurance is fundamentally evil and strongly encourages the stigmatization of mental health issues.

    And as a bog standard CIS white guy I find the “sexy [x]” costumes to be a great warning sign that the person wearing it is uncreative and has nothing of interest to say.

      1. Right? But thanks for also letting us know you’re white and CIS and totally using your privilege to decide whom not to talk to based on the amount of cleavage she’s wearing! I wonder: Does he have a similar “rule” for men? PROBABLY NOT!

        1. Actually I didn’t specify gender of the costume wearer. It’s irrelevant to me if the ‘sexy’ costume wearer is male or female. Though the ‘sexy’ female ones tend to much more objectifying and the male ‘sexy’ ones tend to be much more aggrandizing. This is of course all contextual: if you’re going to an ‘exotic erotic halloween ball’ then that’s totally different from an office or social group or neighborhood halloween party. In circumstances where it’s appropriate the sexy costumes are fine (then we get into the snobbery of hating store bought costumes, I prefer homemade ones even if they aren’t as ‘polished’ they have more heart to them in my view).

      2. I could have been more clear, “sexy [x]” costumes refers specifically to the generic sexy store bought costumes being discussed in the article. I’ve got no problem with sexy costumes that are clever, well done, etc etc. I work with tons of burlesque and drag performers, I may be a bit of a costume snob.

        1. As a costumer myself, I can kind of understand where you’re coming from, but the fact is that not everyone has the time, ability, or resources to be clever for you. Many people can only afford Nov. 1 clearance costumes, and though I’ve almost always made mine, I was absolutely DELIGHTED last year to get my first sexy pre-packaged costume: a dragon. It was fantastic! People get to wear whatever they want for their own reasons. If they like a costume and it makes them happy, don’t rag on that.

          1. Absolutely true, I’m a terrible costumer myself but I have a real strong bias against store bought costumes (I am not claiming this is fair or reasonable of me, just that the bias exists). I gaze with envy upon the amazing costumes my friends make and I cobble together what I can and get lots of help for the rest :)

            I’m a snob about many things, but I also recognize that my snobbery can only be pointed at me. *I* won’t do/say/watch/listen to/etc XYZ, but when I express my views on things I do tend to speak in terms that indicate I’m saying other people shouldn’t as well, which is not what I mean and I continually strive to improve my communication on that front. Thanks for pointing it out to me, it’s very helpful.

    1. I would agree that in fact insurance in general can be fundamentally evil. I would expand on my own experience of this but cannot for legal reasons.
      You should not be denied health insurance, although it may be on a different table and you may need to pay a slightly higher premium than some others, just as smokers for instance have different tables according to how heavily they smoke.
      But to flat out deny any health insurance at all I think is almost illegal in most Western countries.

    2. I would strongly suggest though, keep hunting around because some companies are a lot less evil than others.
      There are lots of insurance brokers around too. If you can find a good friendly one, that can be a big help even if health insurance specifically is not his game.

    3. Sorry about your disability denial. Appeal. You’re going to ALWAYS get denied the first time. Or second. Or third.

      That said, really? You won’t talk to someone who may be awesome because of her clothing choices? Do you think this is somehow at all helpful or not sexist?

      If we’re ever going to be in the same conference, can you let me know so I can dress super sexy? And then I don’t have to bother talking to you at all!

  4. In 2009 there were about 36,909 suicides and 18,735 were with firearms. The breakdown is 29,089 males, 7,820 female, 16,307 male with firearms and 2,428 female with firearms.

    Firearms are so lethal that most suicide attempts with firearms end up being completed.

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