How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
Halloween. You might take this night (or month) to indulge in extreme self-expression, wearing something you normally wouldn’t to go out for a good scare.
After all, it’s a thrilling holiday to bring out the skeleton costume in the back of your closet and don it for the day to send chills up someone’s spine.
While most costumes are harmless acts of self-expression, there are also many costumes that fuel harmful stereotypes about mental health and those in the community.
I’m not talking about horror-themed costume, like vampires or zombies or scary pop culture characters.
I’m talking about costumes for Halloween that seem to make sense because of scary movies and urban legends. Outfits that have been normalized by much of society at this time of year to give chills. Costumes that are also offensive because they exploit the inaccurate idea that mental illnesses are “scary.”
‘Mental patient’ costumes should be avoided at all costs
People with mental health conditions make up a significant part of the population (
By wearing costumes that are advertised as “mental patient,” “psycho,” or include the words “insane asylum,” you’re telling others that mental disorders are okay to laugh at, scary to have, and potentially violent or harmful to others.
These are all inaccurate.
You may also be projecting a great amount of pain onto someone you know or encounter at a party.
An example of this happened in 2011, when an “Anna Rexia” Halloween costume was being sold online by Ricky’s. The “costume” consisted of a tight, black dress with a skeleton on it, a tape measure to hold around your waist, and a badge that read “Anna Rexia.”
Naturally, the costume and its creators got a lot of negative press because the costume was sensationalizing a mental illness.
The public outrage was notable, so much so that a coordinator at NEDA and a Change.org petition denouncing it caused the companies to stop selling the costume completely.
As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, I remember feeling so confused and upset when that costume first surfaced online.
Today, I wish people spoke out just as passionately as they did with the Anna Rexia costume with other costumes that harm those struggling with other mental illnesses.
It’s very common to still go into a store selling Halloween costumes, or to look around online for costumes, and find “mental patient” costumes.
This country’s history of treating mental health patients is horrid and unjust — awful and heartbreaking. I try to focus on how far we’ve come.
But when as individual puts on a costume of an “insane asylum patient,” most including a straightjacket and restraints, it does such a disservice to the mental health community. It puts a wrench in how far we’ve come since patients — people — were treated so poorly.
As Dean Burnett pointed out for The Guardian, ‘asylums’ are mostly “scary places for the inmates, not because of them.”
The inhumane history of how these patients were treated is not a costume. My struggles are not a costume.
There’s no way to erase the pain that former mental institutions have inflicted on countless lives. However, I think the first step toward healing is to ensure we’re not disrespecting those who struggle, which means not wearing costumes that parody that pain.
A costume can shock, surprise, or scare others — but a costume isn’t a costume anymore if it harms a group of people.
Halloween can be a fun time to dress up in something you wouldn’t normally wear. I hope you’ll make sure that the outfit isn’t offensive to marginalized groups of people or those living with mental illness.
Be mindful of potential Halloween costumes this year
If you see someone wearing a costume that’s offensive to the mental health community, remember you’re free to advocate for yourself and explain that it’s not appropriate.
I believe continuing to have open discussions about mental health — whether it’s in school, at the workplace, or among friends and family — can help.
Not everyone may understand why those costumes bring such heavy pain to those who live with mental illness, but with open discussions, we can better explain why stigma is so dangerous.
By speaking up and asking people to be mindful of their costumes, we’re actively creating a world that’s more understanding, and ultimately, less stigmatizing.