By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
It’s that time of year again. When darkness falls this Halloween, I’ll be looking forward to passing out candy and seeing the usual witches, ghosts, Star Wars characters and especially—according to this year’s costume experts—superheroes.
Halloween is a great family holiday that has always been one of my favorites. As we take our children out around the neighborhood, we get a chance to reconnect with neighbors we haven’t seen in a while through quick conversations against the backdrop of candlelit pumpkins, spider webs, rattling skeletons and other front yard displays.
Unfortunately, though, this is also the time of year when we see costumes and displays that portray mental illness as dangerous and frightening. Just the other day, I was out on a walk in my neighborhood and I saw colorful signs directing trick-or-treaters down a “Psycho Path” toward “Asylum Creek.” I am sure this homeowner did not consciously think of the negative messages they were sending, but in some ways that is even more concerning, because these views have been so widely accepted without regard for the damage they can do.
Why does it matter? Isn’t it just a little holiday fun? As I have worked with youth in my community and talked to those working with NAMI nationally, we hear that one of the greatest barriers to getting help is the discomfort with acknowledging that you have a mental illness. A young man recently said that he didn’t think of himself as “crazy” and didn’t want to be associated with those in “that category.” This young person was struggling with early signs of schizophrenia, and we now know that he would have had much better outcomes if he started treatment early. So, attitude makes a difference.
Though we have been successful in some of our collective efforts to put an end to some of the negative messages we encounter during Halloween, companies are still producing plenty of costumes and entertainment designed to make us afraid of mental illness and the people with those illnesses.
A quick Google search shows at least 10 companies still making straitjacket and other mental health-related costumes—everything from the “Mental Health Patient Fancy Dress Costume” to a “Psycho Lunatic Mask,” which manufacturers describe as “perfect for a Halloween as an asylum patient or twisted killer!” You can also find plenty of “insane asylum” party accessories featuring severed heads and fingers, bloody scrubs, chain restraints and the like.
Conversations are so important to increasing awareness of the stigma around mental health, and beginning such conversations on many levels is a proactive way to increase such awareness.
When you are out on Halloween and encounter costumes or attractions that send a negative message about mental health, make it a teachable moment for children and adults. Children tend to take on even subtle attitudes from their parents, so a gentle expression of concern and an explanation of why such representations are inappropriate can make a difference. Simply saying something to children, and to unaware adults, can have a powerful and lasting effect.
The conversation extends beyond our neighborhoods. Educating and influencing corporations can also have a great impact and we have seen it make a difference. We have reached out to a number of companies who, as a result, have taken active steps to remove discriminatory displays, and change Halloween attractions to eliminate harmful stereotypes. Advocacy and engagement can be successful to foster solutions that promote both fun and healthy attitudes toward mental illness.
Halloween is a great American family tradition. But when we send out messages that mindlessly equate a person in a mental hospital with a “twisted killer,” or facilities that provide care with severed body parts and blood-soaked doctors, we are sending a message to those who need help that there is shame in their condition. Even more frightening than a psycho killer mask or “insane asylum” attraction is the prospect that a person with a mental illness would not seek or receive treatment because of the stigma associated with it.
We can all make a difference and this year, let’s drive a stake in the heart of stigma and replace it with messages of hope and understanding.
Mary Giliberti is CEO of NAMI.
Note: This blog also appears in the Huffington Post.
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