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.
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.
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.
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. Amazon.com 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.