Ah, Halloween is coming up, and the usual bullshit-go-round is springing into action. Every year, there’s dozens of costumes, theme park events, haunted houses and the like based around the idea of the “Scary mental patient”. And every year mental health charities, people with mental illnesses, service users, doctors and other mental health professionals step in and say something along the lines of the following;
“Please, stop making ‘scary mental patient’ costumes. Mental illness is a real issue affecting real people, and one of the things which makes mental ill-health so difficult to deal with is the fact that the most popular mental image of someone with a mental illness is a man in an anti-bite mask and a straitjacket. You know the look;
[Image: Man in an orange jumpsuit with a barcode, with shackles and a rubber mask with bars over the mouth, captioned “Adult Skitzo Costume”
And there’s plenty more;
[Image of five men, one in an orange boiler suit with a rubber mask, two in black and white straitjackts and masks, two in white strait jackets]
There’s plenty of examples (These are all from one site) for both binary genders;
[Picture of a woman in a white dress with a black wig, a poppet, and a hospital wristband. The text says;
Our creepy Abby Normal Costume is the perfect choice for Halloween and even comes complete with a stuffed doll! Costume includes wristband, dress, stuffed doll. The Abby Normal Costume includes a white dress printed with grey stains and black biohazard symbols. The dress is decorated with black ribbon bows down the front and a black waistband.
Also included is a wristband with the name ‘Abby Normal’ printed on it and a stuffed doll.”]
So, you know, this is a conceit that the website selling them, Joke.co.uk, is quite behind. The original section they were in was called “Psychos and schizos” and was helpfully labelled with;
“Welcome to our asylum of Lunatics and Psychos costumes, all waiting to escape from the grips of our warehouse this Halloween. Away from the fictional world of zombies and werewolves, the human character can be terrifying or even more so than any other monster seen at Halloween. Make a change from your standard ghost and devil outfits, which people are just not scared of any more, by choosing a piece from this great collection of psychological horror costumes. You may know twisted characters you want to become, or you may just be looking for a little inspiration, whatever your reason for looking through this category you can be reassured that you will be getting one of the most innovative and up to date costume designs on the market today. Release your crazy side for an unforgettable fright night this Halloween.”
Which they’ve now, sensitively, changed to;
Welcome to our collection of Psycho costumes, all waiting to escape from the grips of our warehouse this Halloween. Make a change from your standard ghost and devil outfits, which people are just not scared of any more, by choosing a piece from this great collection of psychological horror costumes. You may know which character you want to become, or you may just be looking for a little inspiration, whatever your reason for looking through this category you can be reassured that you will be getting a costume for an unforgettable fright night this Halloween.”
Though they do still have all the same costumes in place.
“Since Sunday, Jokers’ Masquerade has received a rifled attack of disrespectful tweets, emails and phone calls, attacking the business and staff members. As a company, we feel this is wholly unacceptable. Personnel have had to contend with abusive comments, blasphemous and expletive remarks. Why? The simple fact that over the early part of this week, a core of incestuous Tweeters who parade as “Activists”, a “Masked vigilante” and one Bio which boasts “Angry on the Internet since 1997”, among professional doctors, teachers and charities have taken it upon themselves to voice discontent via Twitter in the name of mental health. Their concern? They take offence at the so called “straitjackets” and “psycho” themed outfits stocked within our Halloween portfolio.”
And in the rest of their “apology” they proudly state that they still sell Golliwog costumes and Jimmy Saville costumes, because, well, some members of the public still want them. And anyone who is actually hurt by these costumes can… Well, they’re not too clear on that. Maybe just stop worrying about their own safety, and instead feel incredibly sorry for Joke who might not make as much money.
And then the personal attacks started, which at first seemed to be all by members of Joke’s staff, but are now just general-purpose trolls who are horrified at the fact that people might prefer not to have an unalterable part of their identity turned into a halloween costume.
Let me start again, on a bit of a “why this bothers me” note;
I’m psychotic. I’ve had several episodes over the past few years of serious psychosis, in which I’ve seen, heard, felt and believed things that weren’t really there. I’ve hallucinated, in short. I’ve been convinced that everyone I know is planning to replace me. I’ve seen rats where there can be no rats. I’ve dug into my hip socket with a scalpel, to try to cut out the pain caused by my EDS. I’ve drank whole bottles of morphine and dug into my wrists, in an attempt to die.
I’ve sat in a taxi after being discharged from hospital into the care of my best friend, bandaged up to the elbows, wearing the pyjamas I was found in, wrapped in a blanket to keep the chill out, desperately trying to hide the hospital wristband that marked me out as a suicide risk, which I’d not been able to cut off because I wasn’t allowed scissors, so that the driver wouldn’t see it and know I was a psycho.
I’ve had friends who consider themselves to be forward-thinking and tolerant describe hateful people as “bipolar” and belligerent ones as “schizo”. I’ve heard “And then he WENT MAD” as a plot device to indicate that someone has become more dangerous or more evil so many times that I don’t even notice it anymore. I’ve heard “Well, he was a bit touched in the head” as the sole explanation for so many violent crimes, that I find it difficult to remember that I am not an evil, hateful person.
Hate crimes against the mentally ill are increasing. Yes, you can’t “see” what’s wrong with us, not in our faces and our bodies, but you all asume that you knkow what “mental” looks like, and you vilify it at every turn. You cross the road to avoid the man talking to himself. You stare at the woman crying in public. You hurry your children past the person with visible self-harm scars, and tell them later that that person was a terrible tragedy, and should be pitied, or that that person is dangerous and should be avoided. Or you mockingly pretend to cut yourself with a butter knife and say “I’m so emo!” These aren’t the big problem though – The big problem is when you spit at us in the street, or throw bricks through our windows, or spraypaint “SKITZO” on our front doors, or surround us in packs and beat us. When you prefer not to hire us as employees and assume that we can’t care for our own children.
To enough of you, we’re close enough to the silver screen caricature of a “psycho” that you can’t even think of us as human.
I have days sometimes where I look in the mirror and think “Christ almighty, I look like a mental patient”. It’s never a good thing. It’s when my hair is a mess, and my eyes are lost in dark circles, and my clothes are filthy. I know what a mental patient looks like, because I’ve seen them on TV. I never think of my old co-worker at the university, who took citalopram every day for as long as I knew her, and loved Newfoundland dogs and 60s fashion. I never think of my old sensei, forcibly sectioned for months at a stretch, who drove like a boy racer despite her three kids and her job as a schools inspector. I never think of the dozens of perfectly normal, loving, supportive, sweet people who have, over the years, vouched to me that they’ve been there, that I’m not the worst they’ve seen, and that they can speak from firsthand experience about how awful the thing is that I’m going through, and have all the empathy and sorrow in the world for me.
Costumes like the ones above reinforce the stigma. That means that they reinforce the idea that “mentals” are frightening people who aren’t quite like “us”, by continuing to propogate the image of a “mental patient” as someone who is dangerous and frightening, but also ridiculous. By doing that, they make actual people with mental health issues – especially the “frightening” mental health issues, like schizophrenia, psychosis (not actually a condition – a symptom of a lot of them), personality disorders and bipolar – less likely to be open about their problems, for fear of backlash, and they make people who have no contact at all with the mentally ill more likely to assume (even if only subconciously) that people with mental illnesses are dangerous.
Joke.co.uk assures us that “When Jokers’ Masquerade think of straitjackets and asylums we think of the novel “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” by Ken Kesey, Batman’s chief antagonist ‘The Joker’ being confined to Arkham Asylum and Harry Houdini performing superhuman escapology feats. We certainly do not see mental patients and we believe our customers can tell the difference too!”
But, let’s be honest – The Joker wouldn’t have been confined in an asylum if the public when he was created didn’t already think of asylums and mental patients as being frightening (The idea of asylum-as-freakshow has been around since the Victorians paid a few pennies a time to watch the inmates at Bedlam), One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was a protest, to an extent, about how mental patients were treated and portrayed (Does anyone else get the feeling that they had just vaguely heard of the film, googled it, and then decided to cite the book to sound more classy?) and none of the straitjacket costumes are actually marketed as “Escapologist costumes”.
In short – Costumes of caricatured mental patients make sense, as costumes, because there are strong cultural connotations attached. Nobody dresses up as an electrician for halloween, because there is no stigma attached to being an electrician. Nobody dresses up as a kidney transplant candidate, because there’s no public consensus as to what someone in acute renal failure looks like. Mental patient costumes work because people think that mental patients are frightening, funny, and notably “not just like other people”. This perception, obviously, harms real people with mental illnesses.
So these are some of the conversations I’ve had lately with, well, trolls. People who firmly believe that they are in the “right”, to be fighting all the way to the knuckle to defend their right to dress up as psychos, against a nasty, oppressive cabal of mental health service users who want to be able to walk down the street without being spat at by teenagers.
Which is basically “It’s not illegal! So I’m going to do it!”
A bit of “I can’t tell the difference between someone’s identity, and mocking someone’s identity!” or possibly “My identity is being offensive! Nyah!”
And the absolute nadir;
Which, well, it pretty much sums it up really.
These are people who are crude unto the point of tedium, and if Joke.co.uk and their ilk want to be a ” law abiding, ethical and honest family run business” (That’s from their own press release) they have to consider if they really want to be represented by people who say things like;
1) Costumes like these are harmful to the mentally ill, because they encourage people to attack/other us.
2) Costumes like these are harmful to the mentally ill, because they make it more difficult for us to seek help.
3) Costumes like these are harmful to society, as they posit that the mentally ill aren’t part of society.
1) But my freedom of speech!
2) It’s funny! Get a life!
3) If you say we can’t dress up as psychos, next you’ll be saying we can’t wear blackface!
Anyway, I’m just rambling now. It’s late, I’m annoyed, and I’ll fix this later.