October 27, 2014

Jack-o-LanternsFlickr / Hanna Horwarth

Halloween is big business. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend $7 billion this year on festive celebrations, including pumpkins—new sets of pumpkin carving tools—and Katniss Everdeen, Ninja Turtle, Batman and Elsa and Anna costumes.

Seventy-five percent of people will give out candy. About 40 percent will wear costumes—the average cost of which is $27. Thirty percent will visit haunted house attractions.

Unfortunately, there are too many cases where haunted houses are set up as “haunted asylums” with depictions of people with mental illness as violent monsters. Costumes also are sold of “mental patients” in straitjackets.

Stigma is No Treat

Even worse are cases where a person will hang a figure in a noose from a tree in their yard—not knowing or recalling that someone who drives by every day had a son or daughter who died by suicide. Let alone the symbolism of racial and ethnic lynching that nooses represent.

These kinds of costumes and attraction perpetuate the stigma that traditionally surrounds mental illness. They are offensive stereotypes. The U.S. Surgeon General warned 15 years ago that stigma is a major barrier to people reaching out for mental health care when they need it. People living with mental illness also internalize stigma, which jeopardizes recovery.

NAMI loves Halloween as much as anyone. But would anyone sponsor a haunted attraction based on a cancer ward? How about a veteran’s hospital with ghosts who died from suicide while being treated for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

What Should You Really Be Concerned About?

Last year, NAMI received many comments about protests over Halloween stigma. Most individuals and families affected by mental illness agree with them.

“Portraying any individuals in a group as scary, wicked or dangerous because of an illness is insensitive, callous and mean,” said one advocate.

Please be kind while enjoying this wonderful holiday, let’s not hurt anyone buy being insensitive to their problems. There are hundreds of other choices for costumes.”

One person who lives with mental illness said that “haunts and bizarre things are just part of the holiday fun. Everyone is reinvented via costumes. I don't think we are singled out or stigmatized or made an object of, if people dress in a strait jacket.”

One dismissed concerns saying that the world has too much political correctness.” Another recommended that we “pick our battles” and that there are bigger concerns.

What do you think? Are some things okay while others are not? Here are some examples:

What You Can Do

Never underestimate the power of polite conversations by phone, email or social media to raise awareness.

For costumes:

  • Let family, friends and local community groups know your concerns.
  • Post comments on company or store Facebook pages.
  • Send a message through website “contact” features—or after a little sleuthing, to the company’s CEOs or public relations executives. Their email addresses are sometimes listed under “corporate” or “investor” information.
  • Contact the managers of local stores to ask that politely that costumes be removed from shelves and that they share your concern with regional managers to be communicated up the corporate chain.

For asylum attractions:

  • Alert your local NAMI Affiliate, family and friends to phone or email the sponsor of an attraction. Post on the company Facebook or Twitter pages.
  • Contact sponsors. Ask that offensive parts of an attraction or advertisements be removed. Changing a name and using “haunted castle” and generic “monster” themes may be all it takes.
  • Ask for as group meeting. Be flexible and patient. In some cases a sponsor can’t make changes immediately but will agree to do so in the future. If so, ask for a public statement or letter. Use it also as an opportunity to find ways to work together looking forward for community education.
  • Large commercial attractions may be difficult or slow to change because of the amount of financial investment.
  • Local civic organizations, high school clubs or similar community groups have greater desire to resolve controversy–they often have no awareness of stigma issues and did not intend to offend.

A Teaching Moment

Contact local newspaper editors and television news directors. Educate them also about misconceptions about mental illness and your concerns.

If they have run promotional stories about a “Haunted Asylum”-type attraction, or related advertising ask them to also run a story about the “other side of the story.” Ask them to check out for themselves any offensive merchandise in a local store or bring a sample to a meeting.

Don’t be surprised if some people react by saying “It’s only Halloween” or are even nasty. Take the high road. Stay polite and respectful in the public dialogue. Even if it seems that too many people disagree with your position, you win simply by raising awareness.

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text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).