When two U.K. chain stores pulled “mental patient” and “psycho” Halloween costumes from sale and apologized, it made headlines that stretched across the Atlantic, from the BBC to CNN, AP, Reuters and all points in between. Now, just a few days later, the story’s gone cold, a victim of the online world’s unquenchable demand for ever newer news.
Maybe too, it was death by unconcern. The Brits may give a rip about people with mental illness taking offense at what people wear for a single night of fun, but here in the States, perhaps the public does a collective eye roll and objects mainly to “making a big deal out of nothing.”
But it is a very big deal to many Americans with mental illness, their families and friends, according to Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. He says such Halloween costumes are unfunny, harmful, cruel – and bigoted.
"Costumes portraying people with mental illness as dangerous or frightening are as discriminatory as a black-face minstrel show,” Renaud says.
In the U.S. it’s not two store chains; the offending merchandise is everywhere. Costumes of the same sort removed from stock in Britain are available from a multitudinous array of online and brick-and-mortar stores, with a wide variety of wearable caricatures to choose from.
Andrew Mayers, Ph.D., a U.K. psychologist and university lecturer, says when he saw the costumes later pulled, he was shocked.
“My initial reaction to seeing the images of the ‘mental patient’ Halloween costume, depicted as a blood-stained, axe-wielding psychopath, was one of horror and anger,” he says. “It went so much against what many of us in the U.K. have being doing to abolish stigma towards mental health.”
In Great Britain the horrified anger was widely shared. Public outcry was swift. Apologies were quick and sincere.
Here in the States, the sound and fury - what there’s been of it - has been muted, while “killer mentally ill”-type costumes are plentiful at U.S.-based stores such as these:
- Pure Costumes: “Goin’ Outta My Mind” costume,” a blood-spattered white dress with straitjacket sleeves and a cap emblazoned “Mental Ward.” The description says, “You can instantly transform into a sexy psycho with this eerie costume.”
- Wholesale Halloween Costumes: Straitjacket costume, complete with Hannibal Lecter mask. Description: “Go as a psycho or a mentally deranged killer who is about to be set loose....”
- At the same store: “Maniac Child’s Costume,” complete with bloody knife. Description: “The focus of this look will definitely be the maniacal mask. At first glance it's a classic hockey mask that screams serial killer but this mask is more than meets the eye. It can split open, revealing the monster behind the mask.”
--Sears too? Yes, even Sears.
- Sears Marketplace: “White Straitjacket Lunatic Inmate Psycho Costume.”
Mayers says the public outcry and positive response in the U.K. wasn’t just due to the efforts of mental health advocates, but from people with mental health diagnoses themselves.
He says his initial shock and anger at the costumes “was tempered by the amazing reaction from folks with lived experience of mental illness, who posted pictures of themselves on social media sites looking quite ordinary, saying ‘this is me, a real mental patient.’ Not an axe in sight.”
Otto F. Wahl, Ph.D., in his book Media Madness, elucidates the ways distorted portrayals of mental illness influence public perception, even when they’re supposedly in fun, and especially among people who don’t know (or think they don’t know) any people with mental illness. Without real experience, fed on a constant stream of newspaper stories, movies, TV, commentary, reviews, sound bites, graphics, books, cartoons and websites that constantly connect violence and mental illness, the public believes it more and more. They become afraid. They become hostile. They believe in “the monster behind the mask.”
Wahl cites a study that found, in Jum Nunnally's words, “The mentally ill are regarded with fear, distrust, and dislike by the general public. Old people and young people, highly educated people and people with no formal training – all tend to regard the mentally ill as dangerous, dirty, unpredictable, and worthless.”
Renaud agrees, and points to the costumes as a factor in negative perceptions.
"Even in holiday jest these costumes carry an ignorant and demeaning message, that persons with mental illness are dangerous or frightening,” he says.
And, he insists, it’s a very big deal. “It is prejudiced, ignorant and hostile to the welfare of the world."
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