Reducing Mental Health Stigma and the ASDA and Tesco Mental Health Costumes

ASDA and The Mental Patient

So, what exactly is the problem with a large retail chain selling a fancy dress costume based on crass, stereotypes and why is it so offensive? You might or might not have heard that costumes labelled as “Mental Patient” and “Psycho Ward” we’re recently withdrawn from sale after attracting a great deal of criticism.  No wonder when so many people are working so hard at reducing mental health stigma.  These costumes were for Halloween and this is what Wikipeia has to say bout Samhain, the festival it stems from:

Samhain was seen as a time when the ‘door’ to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead, and other beings such as fairies, to come into our world. The souls of the dead were said to revisit their homes… …a “feast of the dead” and “festival of the fairies”. However, harmful spirits and fairies were also thought to be active at Samhain. People took steps to allay or ward-off these harmful spirits/fairies, which is thought to have influenced today’s Halloween customs.

All interesting stuff but primitive nonsense that has no place in modern thinking other than it provides a moment for people to mark another year’s progress with a reminder of the past.  The association of mental illness with Halloween is a return to mediaeval ideas about the world that were fuelled by ignorance and undermines some of the progress made in reducing stigma.

Reducing Mental Health Stigma: Does it Matter?jack-o-lantern

The thing to think about is why it matters. People with mental health problems and other disabilities should be able to live their lives comfortably and without discrimination. That’s never going to happen if the communities they are part of regard disability as a sideshow.

I once helped a person to go to hospital who needed to use a wheelchair. This caused such a fuss that I stayed involved longer than I might have, to help deal with access problems. I really noticed the extent to which disability drew attention to itself and how exposed it might make a disabled person feel. This person couldn’t sit at a meal table because the wheelchair didn’t fit and he could not go out without asking for help because of a 10 inch step. It was obvious how things isolate people with disabilities and how those people have to draw attention to themselves to overcome the obstacles.

ASDA and Tesco unwittingly perhaps, have exposed mental illness, and the people who experience it to the scrutiny of others who may not understand, be afraid of it or carry prejudice towards it.  In doing so, they have reinforced those prejudices and stereotypes and compounded stigma.

Don’t Stare

Growing up, I was generally persuaded that it is, “rude to stare” with the occasional physical encouragement if ever I forgot myself!  Staring is inevitable when you see something different especially perhaps, with children.  We stare and beautiful things and things we have never experienced before as well as things we are not sure of.  I still think that staring is wrong but looking is a fact of life; these days try not to notice.  If I see a person with wounds, scars, features or behaviours that are different to mine, I make every effort to look for the person.

I was careful to write “not notice” in the previous paragraph and avoid the idea of ignoring.  ASDA and Tesco in selling those costumes, were ignoring people with mental health difficulties.  It was as if they were not acknowledging the personal offence they might cause or the damage they were doing.  Thankfully, there were people and organisations like Time to Change, that took up the issue and made some positive gain from the incident and thankfully too, both companies have taken steps to say sorry and also, made donations to mental health charities.

Oh and by-the-way, in my work and day-to-day life, I have never met a person with mental illness who looked anything like the characters represented by the costumes which, is a good thing.  If anything, maybe a “Mental Patient” costume should look something like the lovely Ruby Wax?  Apart from the celebrity bit this photo is about as typical as many of the images I carry in my mind of the people I meet.

woman with mental health problems

Ruby Wax Halloween Costume to Reduce Mental Health Stigma
Photo Credit: snaffled from the telegraph.co.uk via Google Images.

What do you think about what happened and about what I have written here?  Do you think that any gains were made for the campaign to reduce stigma and are we making progress as a society at all?  Please comment if you like or share this page with others.

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