How Halloween Depictions of Mental Illness Contribute to Stigma

Woman in mental institute
Lario Tus/iStockphoto

Halloween is a fun event for many—but those with mental illness may find that it can be a time of increased stigma.

The holiday itself is prone to stereotyped depictions of many people, professions, and cultures. So, it is perhaps not surprising that mental illness is so poorly represented. Costumes of all types often range from the amusing to the insensitive to the downright offensive. Sexualized costumes targeted at young children as well as cultural appropriation and insensitivity are all too common themes.

Unfortunately, even Halloween attractions showcase scenes that serve to further stereotype and stigmatize mental illness. Haunted houses are sometimes presented as "haunted asylums" where mentally ill individuals are depicted as frightening and violent. Retailers also offer costumes portraying those with mental illnesses as "crazy," "insane," "violent," and clad in straight jackets.

The spooky celebration is big business, as merchants offer everything you might need to celebrate, including party supplies, candy, costumes, and haunted house attractions. According to the National Retail Foundation, an estimated 171 million Americans will take part in Halloween festivities this year. And Halloween-related sales are expected to top $8.4 billion. 

So what makes depictions of mental illness so damaging and even dangerous? 

The Perpetuation of Mental Health Stigma

Mental illness is already subject to a tremendous amount of stigma.

People who are experiencing the symptoms of mental illness often hide their problems for fear of ramifications in their personal and professional lives.

Characterizing an entire group of individuals as scary and dangerous because they have a psychological or psychiatric disorder is not only cruel, it is highly inaccurate.

Mental illness can be frightening at times, but this does not mean that the mentally ill should be subjects of fear and discrimination. Such representations are part of the reason people sometimes hide their illness and fail to seek appropriate assistance.

A few examples of such costumes and attractions seen in recent years include:

  • Haunted houses presented as "insane asylums" where straight-jacketed patients terrorize visitors
  • "Mental patient" Halloween costumes that depict the mentally ill as objects of fear
  • Sexualized costumes that portray women with anorexia nervosa as "sexy skeletons"

As you might imagine, such representations can be upsetting to those whose lives have been affected by mental illness. Not only that, but such misrepresentations perpetuate myths and misconceptions about mental health.

Mental illness is presented at times as frightening, unpredictable, and a source of violence. And at other times, it is portrayed as amusing and not serious. Both depictions contribute to the worn-out stereotypes that prevent people from seeking help when they need it.

The Dangers of Stigma

The field of mental health has long struggled to combat the stigma associated with mental illness. Individuals with mental disorders are often depicted as unstable and even violent, which creates an enormous obstacle when it comes to seeking help. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, stigma is one of the single greatest barriers to mental health treatment.

People also tend to internalize this stigma, making it less likely that they will seek help. Thanks to portrayals of the mentally ill as unstable and even aggressive, people may experience a sense of embarrassment about their illness. Stigma often involves feelings of shame, blame, and isolation. Those who have mental illness may attempt to hide their symptoms from others while some may even be subjected to discrimination as a result of their illness.

Rather than seek help for their symptoms, people may attempt to self-treat or even ignore their problems out of fear of being labeled. This is unfortunate because there are many safe and effective treatment options available. And the sooner people seek treatment, the sooner they can begin experiencing relief.

Such Attractions and Costumes Can Be Triggering

Imagine driving home from work one afternoon and seeing that one of your neighbors has created a Halloween scene in his front yard featuring the depiction of a lifeless body hanging from a tree. While your neighbor might not mean to cause offense, such scenes can be triggering on multiple levels. Aside from obviously calling to mind racially-motivated lynching, such scenes can cause considerable distress to anyone who has ever considered, attempted, or lost a loved one to suicide.

Fortunately, as The Washington Post reports, haunted asylums and mental illness-themed costumes face challenges as advocates put increasing pressure on retailers and theme park proprietors. In recent years, major retailers have pulled costumes depicting the mentally ill as violent and frightening from their shelves. 

Recently, mental health advocates expressed outrage in response to an amusement park attraction at Knott's Berry Farm called "Fear VR: 5150" that presented an insane asylum as a horror show. The park shut down the attraction in response to the controversy, yet similarly-themed haunted asylum attractions continue to crop up each year.

What Can You Do?

Aside from not patronizing businesses and services that perpetuate these stigmatizing and offensive depictions of mental illness, what else can you do to combat this problem? NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) suggests approaching businesses and politely sharing your feelings about the offending item, contacting local news media, and enlisting the help of others. They also recommend preparing for some backlash as some may suggest that you are overly sensitive or too politically correct.  

The key is to stay calm yet remain flexible. It may take time for companies to respond. But by raising awareness of this issue, you can help de-stigmatize mental illness. Think of the situation as a teachable moment to help raise awareness of the haunting specter of mental health stigma and the obstacles to treatment that such stigma creates.

Sources

Byrne, P. Stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 2000;6(1): 65-72. DOI: 10.1192/apt.6.1.65.

National Retail Federation. Halloween Headquarters. 2016.

NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Are you haunted by Halloween stigma? Here's what do to. 2013. 

U.S. Surgeon General. Mental health: A reports of the Surgeon General. 1999.

Continue Reading