I love Halloween. I take jack-o-lantern carving to be an art form. I have a serious sweet tooth, especially for chocolate and caramel. Caramel apples are amazing. Plus, I love any excuse to come up with an awesome costume.
What’s not to love about Halloween? For starters, insensitive costumes. NAMI recently brought attention to some offensive costumes made by BuyCostumes.com and Spirit Halloween.
This comes after Asda and Tesco (UK) withdrew a “mental patient” costume and gave many apologies for the hurtful item. Asda is even donating £25,000 to Rethink Mental Illness, the charity which brought the issue to light. The companies involved said that the product should have never been for sale, and were very sincere in their remarks.
U.S. companies seem to be less considerate about their products.
These are just a few of the plethora of offensive costumes available. Another costume has a description reading,
“Hallucinate and horrify even the worst psychopath when you wear this Restraint adult mens costume. Straight from the shrink, the white hospital pants, restraining jacket, and menacing mask of this scary costume is sure to drive them mad with fear!”
The last, from Wholesale Halloween Costumes, has a title with the words “Straight Jacket”. Apparently, they did not even bother to check the spelling of the word straitjacket. I am mentally ill, and I know how to spell “straitjacket”, so take that, Wholesale Halloween Costume stigmatizers. That image is not what mental illness looks like. The mentally ill are not violent criminals, with a very small handful of exceptions. Mental illness is a pervasive, tragic, difficult ailment, and those who choose to ignore it should, at the very least, refrain from wearing outlandish costumes that are so obviously insulting toward the mental health community. They know that we still exist, right?
These costumes break my heart. Many mentally ill people are working hard to function in and contribute to society. And here are the “normal” folks (like the popular clique from high school) mocking us, making fun of a restrained, supposedly violent mental patient image.
The stereotyping doesn’t stop with costumes, unfortunately. Everything from decor to invitations partakes in the insensitivity. For example, Brooklyn Limestone blogged their “Haunted Asylum”-themed festivities, along with invitations and props poking fun at anti-psychotic medications.
The back label of the prop bottle of Thorazine reads:
“When the voices in your head
threaten to overtake,
commit to confinement
for society’s sake.
When the ghosts in your mind
become too much to bear,
we’ll sedate and subdue
with the greatest of care.
We’ll listen and treat
whatever your claim
before we label you
Your admittal is confirmed
on October thirty one
processing starts at four
at Kings Country Asylum.”
I don’t know how this would be considered funny or clever. Making a joke out of psychotic symptoms that afflict real people is very hurtful. Saying that anyone with psychotic symptoms is a second-class citizen and should remove themselves from society, because the rest of society is so much better than the mentally ill, is cruel. Jokingly insinuating that anyone who experiences such delusions and/or hallucinations is criminally insane is also insensitive. And many real mental patients have suffered greatly under forced treatment and detainment. It is certainly not a laughing matter.
Lots of insensitive props are also used to scare trick-or-treaters.
These animatronics move and emit screams or demented murmurs. The restrained mental patient, the perfect monster. A recently lobotomized patient, how perfectly eerie. Lobotomies have been used very harmfully on patients that they should not have been performed on. They have a history of ruining lives. Again, not a laughing matter.
Not only are all these examples of stereotyping offensive, they can cause problems in all other areas. One commenter on a recent NAMI post about stigmatizing get-ups wrote, “My son always has a hospitalization between early October and early November. The themes create confusion and add to hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.” Stress is known to very effectively trigger psychotic symptoms, and I would imagine that these types of images are very capable of producing stress enough to act as that trigger.
Seasonal attractions also use the disturbing history of mental illness treatment to make money.
Brighton Asylum describes itself as follows:
“Brighton’s industrial complex is a series of warehouses that were used for housing the sick and mentally disabled back in the mid 1940’s. After years of harsh living conditions and grotesque medical experiments, the patients eventually over-ran the facility, and seized control of it.
For years, locals complained of screams coming from the complex in the middle of the night. Finally, the state investigated into several staff disappearances, and the complex was permanently closed in 1952.
No patients or staff were ever found. Some say that on foggy nights, patients and staff can still be seen wandering in and out of the complex. Those brave enough to enter the abandoned asylum are never seen nor heard from again….”
This is not a real history. The complex of warehouses is just that, a complex of warehouses. However, using a fabricated story about physical and mental torture of mentally ill people to give people a scare for $20 each? Not okay.
Pennhurst Asylum has a different story. It was originally called the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, and was later known as Pennhurst State School and Hospital. It opened in 1908, and its inhabitants were classified as mentally insane or imbeciles, and into physical (epileptic vs. healthy) and dental (good teeth, bad, etc.) categories. The Commission for the Care of the Feeble-Minded of 1913 said that the mentally ill or disabled were unfit for citizenship and a “menace to the peace”.
Henry Goddard, the chief physician of Pennhurst, said himself: “Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal. The general public, although more convinced today than ever before that it is a good thing to segregate the idiot or the distinct imbecile, they have not as yet been convinced as to the proper treatment of the defective delinquent, which is the brighter and more dangerous individual.”
Conditions were horrible, unsanitary, and inhumane. After some exposure, a class-action case was filed against the school, which was found to be in violation of residents’ constitutional rights, and the it closed in 1987. In 2010, the building was renovated and became the Pennhurst Asylum haunted house.
This is a profoundly disturbing history. These are real things that happened. Innocent people were essentially tortured and treated as if they were all violent criminals. Now, money is being made by exploiting deeply disturbing cruelty that once took innocent people’s lives away from them. People are celebrating the scariness of those historic, cold-blooded acts. Not only is this obviously amoral, but it’s extremely disrespectful to the hundreds that were harmed in the building’s history. As NAMI writer Bob Corolla writes, “NAMI loves Halloween as much as anyone else. But would anyone sponsor a haunted attraction based on a cancer ward? How about a veterans’ hospital with ghosts who died from suicide while being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Or one based on racial or ethnic stereotypes?”
The internet is full of suggestions for mental patient costumes, asylum-themed parties and decor, and more. The term “mental patient” is tied to an image of a threatening-looking man in a straitjacket, or a “sexy” tormented woman. People pay to have other people dressed in straitjackets and bloodied nurse outfits chase them with torture devices and medical instruments. They relish the idea of nightmarish mental patients turned violent after years of cruelty. Truth is, thousands of mental patients have actually suffered, suffered immensely, mentally and physically, at the hands of malicious, prejudiced people. The history of psychiatric treatment is disturbing and tragic, and very real. It is not something to make light of, joke about, or sensationalize for thrills. If any friend of mine ever dressed in one of these costumes, I would be very hurt, and be put in an awkward situation. As long as groups keep using disturbing history to make money and celebrate a holiday, as long as manufacturers and customers find fun in dressing up as stereotyped deranged mental patients while the mentally ill community looks on, insulted and hurt, the stigma will only strengthen. This is moving backward. We need to make some progress. Stop stigmatizing Halloween.