I’ve written several times over the years about how stigmatisation of mental illness can be very damaging, and in particular have focused on it at this time of year, as Halloween approaches.
When I was a kid Halloween wasn’t an event we marked in any way. Here in the UK we were busy making our guys for the forthcoming Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night celebrations on 5th November, and hadn’t yet imported the commercialisation of Halloween from the US. So I’m sorry to say, American friends, that your celebration for this rather passes me by! That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise its importance to you, but it does seem to me to be a little artificial for it to be ‘celebrated’ here. This is, perhaps, a little ironic as the origins of Halloween can be traced back to this side of the Atlantic, in a pagan festival mostly known (in Ireland and Scotland, anyway) as Samhain, though there are different names for similar festivals in other Celtic regions. The name ‘Halloween’ has been in existence since around the mid-18th century, and is a derivation of All Hallows’ Eve, i.e. the day before All Hallows’ Day, on which remembrance of the dead takes place. In the past, celebrations have included mummers and costumes, which I guess has been handed down to us through the generations in the way that people dress up: witches are an obvious outfit, but there are many others available, most of which leave me wondering what relevance they have!
But, as I said earlier, this was a tradition that hadn’t travelled to the part of England in which I spent my childhood. Not until modern day marketing and commercialism took over, that is. At some point over the past 25 years or so this has become a bigger event in this country, probably as a result of the way in which American popular culture has been transferred over here by TV programmes. Never one to miss an opportunity to make money, retailers have been falling over themselves to profit from Halloween. But in their doing so, the boundaries of taste have often been forgotten. I wrote five years ago about Asda – and to a lesser extent, Tesco – selling costumes that mocked mental illness. The message that these were giving children, that it was somehow acceptable to make fun of people with mental health problems, was appalling, and the retailers had to give in to the outcry and withdraw the products from sale. But even after that outcry you can still find such costumes for sale this year among the specialist online fancy dress retailers. Here are a couple of examples I found without too much effort. Firstly, from partybritain.com:
And secondly, from escapade.co.uk:
No doubt there are others deserving to be named and shamed but I was too disheartened to look any further. How can anyone believe this to be acceptable? This is a shameful way to make money, but I guess that as these companies are much smaller than the likes of Asda and Tesco they have managed to slip under the radar. That doesn’t make them any less guilty in my eyes, though.
Another depiction of mental health issues which I find objectionable is to be found in horror movies. To be honest, I have a very low gore threshold and don’t watch a great many horror movies, and don’t really understand the fascination they hold for so many. Each to their own, of course, but where I really draw the line is where someone who is mentally ill is the main character in a movie and their illness is used in a stigmatising way. You’ll know which movies I mean, I’m sure: how anyone can see these as entertainment is beyond me, though I do like Jamie Lee Curtis!
I have no problem with anyone wanting to celebrate Halloween, though I imagine most, either in the US or elsewhere, would be hard pressed to explain exactly what it is they are celebrating. But as these little posters from the admirable Time To Change organisation remind us, these celebrations should have absolutely nothing to do with mocking mental illness. These were actually created a couple of years ago but their message is still very valid and, sadly, remains relevant. There is nothing remotely funny about costumes and behaviour that mock those with mental health issues as ‘nutters,’ ‘mad’ or just ‘mental,’ when the word is used pejoratively.
Remember, Halloween is supposed to be the modern day version of an old pagan custom, which had nothing to do with mental illness. It is also significant in a religious sense – the day before All Hallows’ Day, which has been a Catholic day of note for centuries – and that also isn’t about mental ill health! The Time To Change website has eight helpful tips on how to enjoy Halloween without perpetuating the stigmatisation of mental health. They even include a little bit of historical knowledge in there so that you can impress your friends by knowing the meaning of the Halloween tradition. If you’re interested these tips can be found here and are well worth a look.
So please, by all means enjoy any celebrations you may be having, but don’t mock those who are unable to defend themselves against unfair stigmatisation.