Bring to mind something about yourself that you feel ashamed of, something you feel is a weakness: a character trait, something you said, something you did… Now imagine how you would feel if this thing were held up and talked about as if it were the worst possible thing: inhuman, scary, impossible to understand. Imagine a supermarket made a fancy dress costume based on how disgusting this thing was – turning it into a caricature. For the millions of people who have been to see a psychologist or psychiatrist because of deep distress of some kind, this is exactly what has happened.
‘Mental patient’ costumes on sale at Asda, Tesco and on Amazon have been withdrawn from sale, but the debate and backlash continue. People who have experienced a mental health problem (1 in 4 people in the UK), are tweeting photos of themselves with the reference #mentalpatient to show the true face of mental illness: i.e. potentially the face of any one of us.
The two costumes on sale were of a bloodied, knife-wielding man in a straightjacket or a boiler-suited person with a Hannibal Lecter-esque mask and hypodermic needle.
The Halloween costumes are a prime example of ‘othering’, the process of labelling a person or group of people as being different and somehow worse than the mainstream, pointing out perceived weaknesses in order to reinforce a power imbalance. Michel Foucault, in his ‘Madness and Civilisation’, described how societies tend to ‘other’ mental illness, making people with mental health problems feel alienated and abnormal, in order for everyone else to feel more powerful.
This is a common flavour in conversations about mental illness, perhaps because it is so scary to consider the possibility that we are all vulnerable to extremes of sadness, anxiety, or irrational thinking. How much easier it is to pretend that this is something entirely removed from our everyday lives. In fact mental illnesses are commonplace, although many people who experience them are terrified of being labelled or misunderstood.
Surely not a problem for the children and teenagers who would have been targeted by these Halloween costumes though? They will have been unaware of any stigma to do with mental illness, right? Wrong. Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem. Lucie Russell, Director of Campaigns at Young Minds, UK charity for children’s mental health and wellbeing, described how much worse stigma around mental illness is for young people than for adults: “Children and young people can be nasty to each other. Anyone different or ‘not normal’ is a potential target for bullying. Costumes like this make things so much worse. They perpetuate the idea that people with mental health problems are lunatics and then there’s all the rest of us, when actually we’re all on a continuum.”
Ms Russell was disappointed in the supermarkets’ archaic depiction of mental illness: “this takes everything back in time,” she said. “The more we do this ‘them and us’ thing, the more people won’t take on board that everybody has mental health, it’s part of being a human being. We need to look after each other and help our children to develop resilience.”
Although the costumes have been withdrawn from Tesco, Asda and Amazon, similar ‘psycho ward’ costumes or straightjacket fancy dress are still available online through other sites.