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Halloween – Again

October 29, 2018 18 comments

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.

Happy Halloween!

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No Stigma For Halloween, Please

October 31, 2016 28 comments

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 tonight 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. Of course, I have some treats ready in case I have some little visitors this evening, but this will be my 9th Halloween at my current address and I’ve yet to see any trick or treaters!

As retailers fall over themselves to make money from Halloween the boundaries of taste have often been forgotten. I recently reblogged a post I wrote three 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, as I mentioned in a more recent post on the stigmatisation of mental health issues, you could still find such costumes for sale this year among the specialist fancy dress retailers. The two I found, with very little effort, were Partypackage Ltd and Wonderlandparty, but no doubt there are others. 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.

I have no problem with anyone wanting to celebrate Halloween, though I imagine most outside the US 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 have absolutely nothing to do with mocking mental illness.

 

So please, by all means enjoy any celebrations you may be having this evening, but don’t mock those who are unable to defend themselves against unfair stigmatisation.

Happy Halloween!

Stigma

September 28, 2016 23 comments

Continuing my theme for this week of posts on mental health, I’m turning my attention to the stigma that society attaches to mental illnesses and those who suffer from them. To illustrate this point,  I suffered this in a relatively modest way last year and am sharing this story with you.

I lost a friend. Nothing major in the great scheme of life, it happens all the time. But not as a result of someone’s ignorance. Briefly, I had been due to attend this friend’s annual house party weekend, but a family event was arranged for the same weekend and, given the distances involved, it wasn’t possible to do both. I decided, as I think most of us would do, to put family first and gave my apologies. Things were strained for a month or two until the weekend of the event itself, when I was treated to the worst that modern day friendships can bring: yes, I was unfriended and blocked on Facebook, thrown out of the WhatsApp group, and unfollowed and blocked on every social media platform through which we were connected. I was later told by another friend that my reason for absence had not been believed, coming as it did after my having to drop out of a previous gathering earlier last year due to illness. It was deemed by She Who Knew Everything that my real reason for not attending either event was that I was a depressive and was making excuses for not being able to attend these events. Firstly, that was untrue. Secondly, what qualifications did she have to make that judgement? Thirdly, how dare anyone judge someone on this basis, and choose to end a friendship as a result? And fourthly, even if she had been correct in her assumption, wouldn’t a true friend have attempted to help, rather than act the way she did? Sadly, a few of the others from our circle of friends chose to follow her lead – which my other friend described as ‘bullying.’

I’m telling you this not as a way of avenging what I feel as having been wronged – I wouldn’t use my blog for that, it’s too petty, and if anything were to be said it should be in private – but because what my ex-friend was doing was stigmatising people who have at some point suffered from a mental illness. Having suffered the debilitating effects of depression, people don’t need to be judged as being in some way inferior by those who don’t know any better. The fact that some others followed her approach speaks volumes for how entrenched such ignorance is in our society.

Let’s take another example. On Monday I reblogged a post from three years ago about the crass stupidity of Asda and Tesco in selling ‘mental health patient’ costumes for Halloween. I’ve since looked at their websites and am pleased to see that this year’s offerings don’t include anything so offensive. Sadly, though, such behaviour does still exist. It didn’t take me long in searching through the online fancy dress specialists to find similar examples still being offered for sale. This, for example:

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Or maybe this:

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What can possibly be funny, entertaining, or appropriate for public display about mocking an illness which causes so much damage and hurt, both to those who suffer from it and to those who love and care for them? Again, I see this as being caused by ignorance and the ease with which mental illness is stigmatised by society. Would someone think it right to offer a ‘cancer patient’ costume? Maybe, but they would very soon be told how offensive they were being. Partypackage Ltd and Wonderlandparty – consider yourselves named and shamed. When, if ever, are you likely to enter civilised society?

Is there an answer to this? In one word, the answer is ‘education.’ Better education, from an early age, about the effects of mental illness, its causes and treatments, and a basic sense of human decency and courtesy in dealing with sufferers, will of course help to improve the situation. But it is facile to say this and expect it somehow to happen by some process of osmosis. This will take a huge amount of time, effort and resources to encourage people out of behaviours which have been developed over centuries. Here in the UK funding – as I showed yesterday – is being diverted away from mental health treatments, so it would be naive in the extreme to expect an enormous amount of money to be found for the education programme which is so badly needed. The fact that a candidate for the US presidency can go public with mockery of people with disabilities – and people defend him – suggests that this isn’t only an issue in my country, either.

Many organisations are involved in providing education around mental health issues. But they rely largely on donations, and are not as far as I’m aware in receipt of Government funding – if I’m wrong in that I’d be happy to put the record straight! Even so, resources are limited: there would still be many who would not be reached by such a message or are too entrenched in their views and prejudices to want to hear it.

Can I do anything about this? Can you? It’s very easy to assume that being little people inside a vast machine means that we can’t help. But we can. Take some time to learn more about this. Visit websites like the Mental Health Foundation or Time To Change and see what others are saying about their experiences. If you’re in the US you can click on the logo at the top of this site to get to the Stand Up site. Then share this knowledge with friends and family. As the saying goes, ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’ and we can all do our bit to increase awareness. After all, one in four of us is affected by a mental health problem at some point in our life, so it may be closer to home than you might think!

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