Two British supermarkets were forced to remove “mental patient” and “psycho” Halloween costumes from their websites last week after complaints that they were insensitive and offensive to those with mental health problems.
ASDA, a WalMart subsidiary, and TESCO were both found to carry in their online catalogs Halloween costumes that mental health charities described as dehumanizing and damaging to those with mental health issues. On sale at ASDA for £20 ($32) was a “mental patient” outfit, complete with fake blood, a mask and fake meat cleaver, while Tesco had what was described as a “psycho ward adult costume” for sale at £18.45 ($30).
A social media storm brewed, the news broke across a variety of media outlets and even made national and international news. The supermarkets swiftly withdrew the costumes, saying they were deeply sorry for any offense caused. ASDA also promised a sizable donation to the mental health charity MIND.
Those concerned by this issue said that withdrawing the costumes was the responsible thing to do, but some on social media were less understanding and thought the costumes were simply a harmless bit of fun that draws on established cultural stereotypes.
For me this story is something that carries personal resonance.
I am among the one in four British people, and countless others around the world, who has or will suffer from some form of mental health problem.
Like people with physical illnesses who have invisible symptoms, like those with MS for instance, I must face the difficulty of explaining why to the world’s eyes I appear perfectly healthy while, in reality, I am standing on the point of a knife.
To one side there is a super-heated edge which as I slide cuts with sparking euphoria. This is Mania. It carries a special poison that makes me feel as though I am not injured at all. In fact, to feel the love of this blade is like being told the Unified Theory. Suddenly, everything makes sense. The mind will race, the passions flare and I could run all night. I am arrogant in these moments. Prone to mistakes. It is exhausting to come down to normal speed.
Yet on the other side, and by no means the kinder cut, there is the darker blade. Depression. Its touch feels like winter ice and it bites as it pushes through the skull. It cools everything with a special kind of crystal dread that vibrates only to my songs of fear, of doubt, of self loathing; it sings them back with repetition seeming endless while carving out new slights and sins and mutilating me to invent errors that were not mine at all.
Daily I balance on the knife point with careful attention, managing myself as I have been taught, all the while fearing the wobble that is coming. And it is coming.
It can be the slightest thing that will make me fall.
A new idea might blaze just a degree too hot and I am gone for days in the hot madness of creating. I might not sleep, or if I do it is to the punctuation of fevered dreams. All else is trivial. I will consume books four at a time. I will exercise with fervent love for the physical. I will crave sexual contact as though it is air.
Or perhaps it will be the slightest of errors of which no one else but me cares, and then I am all gone away. I am hollowed out by the desire to vanish.
I am fortunate in this way though: I have never wanted to kill myself. At times I have desired to not exist at all, but in that there is a gap. I lack the actual will for making this life end. I have thought about how it could be done, but this is always just an intellectual phantom because I have never felt the will to take my own life rise within me. Yet, in these moments, it is very much like being physically dead while the mind still whirs. I am frozen by the cold. I am under the ice. I am not waving but drowning.
Both of these states can last for months and they can shuffle themselves like a living pack of cards, the outcome of which I can not easily predict.
As to the cost, it feels like each time I wake up I am in effect gambling on what the brain might decide for me today: daily function can be a struggle. I am made tired just watching my own frenetic moods, and that allows for little energy for anything else. I organize things almost obsessively. Organization, you see, can help me extinguish anxiety which in turn can save me from depression.
I’ll also check things with a compulsion that often spoils rather than makes better: I have been attempting to write a novel now for the past two years. Just when I am close to finishing, I convince myself the novel is lacking and, in a manic frenzy will rewrite only then to repeat the cycle when the next depression comes. I am slowly winning this fight, but it is a grind that to others must be mystifying.
Other facets of my illness include anxiety to the point of ridiculousness over trivial things like catching public transport, paying my taxes, meeting friends at restaurants, going on holiday and, perhaps most encumbering of all, being emotionally and physically close to people.
Thankfully, though, there are people that have been trained to understand the symptoms of illnesses like mine, mental health practitioners who can offer guidance, behavioral therapies, even medication should the case warrant. Yes there is a strong support system, if people are only aware of it.
You can understand, though, why when faced with the prospect of headlines about “mental health patient” costumes, blood spattered and meat cleaver in hand, they make me catch my breath and wince.
I am not the homicidal mental patient that the media so often invokes to reduce tragedies to simple explanations, and yet my mental health issues would put me sailing, at least in the minds of the uninitiated, in fairly similar waters.
Also, this kind of stigma has real impact. It could prevent a young person with an emerging mental health issue from seeking help, believing they are now beyond it or are not worthy of being helped. I used to feel like that. I know how isolating it is.
In turn, this could feed into the neuroses that drives a sufferer deeper into depression, substance abuse and poor physical health that, in Britain alone, is thought to lead to 33,000 people dying every year. It could even contribute to the one death every two hours that in England alone comes as a result of suicide.
So for those who complain that such costumes are just a bit of fun, I readily say I agree it is important that we not be over sensitive and recognize that for many people they are just that: fun. No offense intended. I hope that many of you will have a great time this Halloween and then return home, pack away your costumes and recall the night of celebration with fondness.
I suppose, then, this is a plea to spare a thought and remember that for those people like me, mental illness isn’t a costume we can take off; it’s a reality for every day of the year.
With understanding and support though, mental illness can be managed.
If you would like more information relating to mental health and mental health services, here are a few links that might be of use:
- Mental Health Foundation.
- National Institute of Mental Health.
- The Trevor Project.
- Information about bipolar disorder.
- Information about anxiety disorder.
Top Photo Credit: Thinkstock; photos in post:The Blaze