Stigma is Scary – People Living With Mental Illness Are Not
One of the things I like most about Halloween is that it offers such a wide range of ways to participate and have fun. Horror movies not your thing? You can stick to fun activities like carving a jack-o-lantern and handing out candy to trick or treaters (in normal, non-pandemic years at least). And then there are the endless costume possibilities. You can be anything from a superhero to your favorite movie character to some very obscure cultural reference or the more traditional choice of ghost or vampire.
So with that range of costume possibilities and ways to have fun in mind, it’s always deeply upsetting to see Halloween become an event where mental illness is misrepresented and stigmatized. Some haunted house attractions are centered around “asylum” themes, or have a “haunted psych ward” component. Actors wearing straight jackets or wielding weapons chase visitors and shout lines about hearing voices. The message is very clear: Mental illness, and people who experience mental illness, are scary, violent, and to be feared.
In recent years, several costumes have been pulled from the shelves following pressure from mental health advocates. Unfortunately every year there are still a few new inappropriate and offensive costumes that pop up and make their way to stores and online retailers, and regrettably they are eventually seen out in public at bars and parties. And each time one is sold and then worn, it perpetuates the stigma and misconceptions around mental illness.
These interjections of mental illness into Halloween are neither fun nor harmless, but keep in place harmful stereotypes. These attractions and costumes continue pushing the idea that a person living with mental illness is violent and should be avoided. Discrimination is still a problem for people living with mental illness, and every day those who experience symptoms choose not to seek help for fear of mistreatment by the public, or that their relationships with family and friends will suffer. These depictions also hurt those who have experienced mental illness, especially those who have been hospitalized. Their deepest fears about what society thinks of them are realized when they see illness become a subject of fear-based entertainment.
It would never be acceptable to have haunted houses set in a hospice or cancer wing of a hospital, nor would we find cancer patient costumes to be appropriate. It’s important that we all speak up when we see mental illness being stigmatized, and stand up for those who have experience with illness and are negatively impacted by the perpetuation of stigma.