Mental health: are we living in the dark ages?

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One in four of us experience some form of mental health difficulties in any given year. Yet “Mental Patient Fancy Dress” Halloween costumes, decorated with blood and completed by axes and chainsaws, have been on sale by multimillion-dollar retailers ASDA, Tesco and Amazon. As rates of self-harm in the UK are the highest in Europe, at 400 per 100,000, can these sales be justified as ‘a bit of fun’?

The outfits in question were pulled from sale after criticisms, most notably from the mental health charity Mind, claiming that these outfits were fuelling stigmatisation towards people suffering from a mental illness. While both ASDA and Tesco have offered to pay a charitable donation to Mind, ASDA’s donation totalling £25,000, the fact that these outfits even went on sale demonstrates that stigmas about mental illness are entrenched into our society. You would not see a similar fancy dress costume for a cancer patient, or any other physical condition, so why is it OK to sell a costume depicting a sufferer of mental illness?

Costume retailers Escapade, currently still stocking similar outfits, blogged a justification for their actions: “Our “psycho-killer film” products are merely an extension of that film’s own merchandising – its intention is not to promote the actions of its characters or the public reaction to them, but simply the piece of art itself.” Yet as these costumes are not an official part of any horror film merchandise, they serve to caricature the mentally ill, rather than illustrate the film character itself. Moreover, the description of these costumes, particularly ASDA’s “Mental Patient Fancy Dress Costume” is not a movie reference, but a reference to a situation thousands of people within the UK are in, not because they are a “psycho-killer”, but because they are people with a mental illness.

The stigma associated with mental health does not end there. Portrayals of mental health in the media and in television are equally offensive, with many depictions, or media coverage, showing people with mental health issues as violent to others or themselves. This is firstly grossly inaccurate, as people with mental health difficulties are far more likely to be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator. In addition to this, around 95% of homicides are committed by people who have not been diagnosed with a mental health problem, clearly showing that there is not a correlation in homicide and mental illness. So why do the media, television and film all emphasise, wherever possible, a correlation between mental illness and sensationalised violence?

The reality is that the perpetuation of these stereotypes is not only inaccurate but damaging to people recovering from mental illness. The Stigma Shout survey, run by the charity Time to Change, reported that 87% of people who took part in their survey found that stigmas about mental health had had a negative impact on their lives. Two-thirds have stopped doing things because of stigma and two-thirds have stopped doing things because of the fear of stigma and discrimination.

Sue Barker, from Mind, told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Some of the worst myths that fuel this stigma is the assumption that we’re going to be dangerous, knife-wielding maniacs and that is simply not the case.”

She added: “The stigma can be life-limiting and life-threatening because people don’t think they can talk to anybody and sadly for some people they take the option of not being with us anymore.”

Clearly stigma, and fear of stigma, is an ever present-threat to the livelihood of people suffering with mental health issues, whether it be mild depression or schizophrenia, and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes in our everyday lives helps to reinforce this stigma. By treating mental illness as something to be frightened of, only contradicted by homicidal maniacs, we are no better than our medieval counterparts. It seems Bedlam is still very much alive in our cultural imagination, and, as stated by Alastair Campbell, we may as well be living in the Dark Ages because of it.

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