So why DID Asda think a mental patient Halloween costume would be okay?

So, fellow mental patients, just how mad should we be getting about Asda’s Halloween “mental patient fancy dress costume,” complete with strait jacket, fake blood and cleaver? After all, the supermarket has now apologised for any upset caused, withdrawn the item from sale and promised to donate “a sizeable amount” to Mind. So no point going psycho now. Let’s all calm down, keep taking the tablets and leave the normal people alone.

Given the degree to which mental health stigma has seeped into our everyday language, it’s not all that surprising when retailers think it’s okay to make fancy dress costumes based on The Mad. You can see how it happens. The mentally ill, when they’re not being dismissed as everyday malingerers, tend to assume a mythical status. They’re lurking in the shadows, never to be seen in broad daylight. How can you offend a thing that isn’t even real?

Asda aren’t the only retailer to have fallen into this trap. There’s Tesco with their “psycho patient” costume and Simply Fancy Dress with their “women’s mental patient” garb, although to be fair, the latter is exactly what I looked like when I was hospitalised for anorexia in 1994 (though god knows why I was walking around with a dead-eyed doll when all the male patients had hunting knives and massive injection needles. Guess those are just the gender-based rules for accessorizing while clinically insane!).

The real experience of mental illness is of course not like this (I was only kidding about the dress. I looked horrifying in a far more acceptable, London-Fashion-Week-emaciated manner).  Whatever the headlines say, the average schizophrenic does not frighten others by appearing round street corners with murder on his or her mind, while the average anorexic is not a ghost-train prop roused to life. Mental illness is terrifying in far more subtle, insidious ways.

It’s terrifying because external observers don’t understand it while sensing that they too, could fall prey to it.  No one wants to have a mind that feels broken. They othering of mental health patients persuades “the sane” that mental illness won’t happen to them, while the mix of demonization and disbelief in portrayals of madness makes ongoing failures to integrate mentally ill people into public space seem reasonable. Like Norman Bates, the mentally ill are evil but they’re also not quite real. It’s okay to mock them because they won’t answer back.

Despite all the fuss about Asda’s costume, and the swift response, in the back of my mind I suspect plenty of people will think it’s an over-reaction. After all, the psycho killer is a well-known figure in slasher flicks. People must know, mustn’t they, that it’s that which is being referred to, and not all those friends, relatives, colleagues and lovers who’ve struggled with mental illness themselves? I’m not so sure they do.

The overlap in the language we use to describe those who are ill and those who are no more than dark creations of fiction makes the world a more hostile place for the former. Mentally ill people may be more likely to be victims of violence themselves but you wouldn’t think it by looking at this year’s batch of Halloween costumes. Perhaps next year we should ask for something more accurate and far more terrifying; not fake blood and plastic cleavers, but faces that tell you you’ll always be judged and there’s nothing you can ever do to escape.

7 thoughts on “So why DID Asda think a mental patient Halloween costume would be okay?

  1. Having to deal with my brother over the past 25 years who suffers from schizophrenia and has spent years at a time in a psychiatric ward I believe this was a complete overreaction and feel rather sad about our society and it’s “professionally offended”.

    1. I’ve tried to think of a way to respond to this which doesn’t look like I’m joining in with a game of “schizophrenic sibling top trumps”. All I’ll say is not everyone in your situation feels the way you do.
      Hope you and your brother are getting the support you need (would highly recommend Rethink sibling support groups, if there are any in your area).

  2. I always have very mixed feelings about these kinds of debates, concerning ableism and mental illness. Like, people policing the use of the word ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’ to mean something illogical or irrational to me seems ridiculous. It’s almost like we have to pretend that being mentally ill is an equally desirable way of being. As someone who has suffered depression for many years, I really don’t think this is the most stigmatizing aspect. In fact I couldn’t care less if ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ is used in this way because that’s more accurate. Mostly I am more concerned with the fact that is conceptualized as a health problem in the first place – which, by rendering it as an individual defect of a person, is very stigmatizing. Generally I think so-called mental illness is an ordinary response of individuals to the circumstances they have experienced in an oppressive, alienating world.

    Far worse are the concepts of ‘positivity’ and ‘negativity’, where being a ‘positive person’ (i.e. being happy about things a lot and not talking about it when you feel bad about anything, or even criticising anything) is lauded as a goal and people are urged to purge ‘negative’ people from their life as they simply hold everyone else back and are a general drain on life itself. This simply serves to further reduce the self-worth of those who are having a rough time while legitimising the actions of people who are supposed to care but can’t actually be bothered to deal with them.

    Perhaps these images are more relevant for people with more psychotic disorders, I don’t know. I have yet to hear from soomeone who actually suffers from these conditions who has said they find this kind of thing offensive.

    But losing one’s mind, or seeing someone lose it, is a scary thing. And scary is what halloween is all about, no?

  3. I have been gradually recovering from anxiety disorder, stress and depression that I got whilst at uni 3 years ago. I went at least monthly to the counsellor and I remember looking forward to the meetings because I had someone to talk to about it who didn’t look at me like I was about to launch a car bonnet into their jaw and hang myself (which happened once and I was too scared to talk to anyone else after that). I am now a much stronger person, both mentally and physically, as the recovery process has taught me a lot about how to control all the little inconvenient everyday triggers in my life. So, after keeping it a secret, I tried sharing my happiness with my best friend. Guess what? She doesn’t talk to me anymore. So although I didn’t like what Asda and Tesco did, unfortunately I can’t say I was surprised. A lot of people, irregardless of their relationship to you, still hold their prejudices firmly. They just don’t expect those prejudices to occur in the people around them, if that makes sense.

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