Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Are You Haunted by Halloween Stigma? Here’s What to Do

By Bob Corolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

It is Halloween season again.
For all the fun that can be had carving pumpkins, eating candy and dressing in costumes, unfortunately October is also a month with Halloween stigma. Typically, horrors involve “haunted asylum” attractions with depictions of residents as violent monsters. In other cases, some stores sell “mental patient” costumes with straitjackets. These images perpetuate stigmatizing, offensive stereotypes of people living with mental illness.

NAMI loves Halloween as much as anyone else. But would anyone sponsor a haunted attraction based on a cancer ward? How about a veterans' hospital with ghosts who died from suicide while being treated for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Or one based on racial or ethnic stereotypes?

The U.S. Surgeon General has identified stigma as a major barrier to people reaching out for mental health care when they need it. People living with mental illness often internalize stigma as well, impeding recovery.

Mental Patient Costumes

Two British retail stores—one owned by Wal-Mart, Inc.—recently pulled mental patient costumes from shelves and apologized after protests.

Unfortunately, the sale of mental patient costumes continues in many U.S. stores. Last year, NAMI singled out, which claims to be the world’s largest costume retailer. This year, shaming extends to seasonal Spirit Halloween stores (owned by Spencer Gifts). In the face of these large retailers, what can one person do?

  • Send a protest to such companies through website “contact” features—or after a little sleuthing, to the company’s CEOs or public relations executives. These email addresses are sometimes listed under “corporate” or “investor” information.
  • Post a comment on the company or store Facebook page.
  • Contact the managers of local stores that carry such costumes and ask politely that they be removed. Enlist others to do so as well, and mention that British stores have already done so—including a chain that was Wal-Mart-owned. Local stores for and Spirit Halloween can be found on their websites. Ask that they share your concern with regional managers to be communicated to company headquarters.

However, recognize that it is a tough battle that involves advancing by inches over time rather than yards or miles. A Salon commentary celebrated the right to protest, but noted that the problem is bigger than Halloween: “If you want to be an insensitive jackass, you’re always going to have plenty of opportunity,” wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams. “If you think it’s cool to parade around in a manner that’s racially tone-deaf or clueless about mental illness, chances are you’re not confining your idiocy to one night a year anyway.”

Haunted Asylums

One of the first stigma reports received this year involves the Psychopath Sanctuary “Devil’s Folly Haunted Barn” near Allentown, Pa. Radio advertisements have proclaimed:

Alert, alert, alert! Several mental patients have escaped the state hospital. They are rumored to be hiding in an abandoned barn. Local residents have been reported missing. Neighbors of the barn have heard strange noises near the barn and believe people are being tortured there.

As reported in the Allentown Morning Call NAMI Lehigh Valley haslaunched a protest. So far, the response from the attraction operator has been dismissive. If you would like to support NAMI Lehigh Valley in their efforts, please send a polite email to the Devil’s Folly explaining why stigma is a serious public health problem:

This brand of haunted house is not confined to Allentown. For example, there’s one called the Insanitarium in Pinson, Ala. But what about Halloween attractions that might haunt your own community?

General Advice

  • Contact sponsors personally. Start a polite dialogue about how to resolve the controversy and to work together in the future. Ask them to remove offensive parts of any attraction or advertisements. In some cases, changing a name and using “haunted castle” and generic “monster” themes may be all it takes. Use this time as an opportunity for education. Remember to 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.
  • Alert other NAMI members, family and friends to phone, send letters or e-mail the sponsors. Utilize social media like Facebook or Twitter. Organize local leaders in the mental health community, especially psychiatrists, hospital CEOs or clinic directors.
  • Contact local newspaper editors and television news directors. Educate them about stigma surrounding mental illness and your concerns. If they have run promotional stories about a “Haunted Asylum”-type attraction, ask them to also run a story about the protest. Make the protest both a "news event" and a "teaching moment." Offer local individual or family members who have been affected by mental illness for personal interviews.  
  • Local civic organizations, high school clubs or similar community groups may be the sponsor of an offensive attraction. Keep in mind that they often have no awareness of stigma and did not intend to offend. They usually have a strong desire to resolve controversy. Be neighborly in finding solutions.
  • Be prepared for backlash. Many people in the community may say “It’s only Halloween” or even something 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.

Do You Agree?

Do you share concerns over Halloween stigma? Do you have other strategies to recommend?  Share your thoughts below.


boon dox said...

I wanted a straight jacket for years and finally got one back in 2005 i loved it and so did the nighober hood kids i see nothing wrong with them and never thought it was a stigma.I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia with sever psycosis for 20 years if anything the hauted asylums and mental health costumes have made it ok to go for treatment.

Kevin Phillips said...

This is good. I think people need to be aware of anything that stigmatizes the mentally ill, as I have schizophrenia.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with this article and it has become a sad world in which we live when Halloween has changed to something so repulsive and hurtful. What does the eve of All Saints Day have to do with torture, the focus on scaring people with "crazy people" along with sex? This is not the Halloween I was part of when I was a child. As I have always said unless you have a family member or close friend that struggles with mental illness then you probably don't care about what you have done to add to the stigma of the mental illness.

Anonymous said...

Mental Illness is never any thing to celebrate, Portraying any individuals in a group as scary, wicked or dangerous becasue of an illlness is insensitvie, callous and mean.
Please be kind while enjoying this wonderful holiday, lets not hurt anyone buy being insensitive to their problems.
There are hundreds of choices of customes, I know you can find a great one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful article. As a person with a family member who struggles with bi-polar disorder, I appreciate how important this issue is.

Ashley Rodrigue said...

NAMI on campus at The University of Texas at El Paso agrees, and is currently in the process of writing a letter to another organization on campus celebrating Halloween with a Haunted Asylum theme.

tony maddy said...

i agree its good to stand up for those suffering from severe mentall illness as i have suffered through most of my teenage and adultlife. but dont make such a big deal about it because those big companies, only have one primary goal and that is too make money for the companie. so we should make the stigma a ghost and shed that old skin. and make our lives great and fun, and escape the stigma which, people want to nickpick, just for fun. thats all they care about. so shed the skin, and they'll just focus on the dead skin, while we have new skin.

talking horse said...

I've had people mock me as my symptoms became obvious at different times. You can be anything you want except mentally ill. Anything you do doesn't seem to matter if someone finds out you struggle with something, especially in church. Some churches have special support groups that are very helpful, but you still can't stand up and say in the general assembly what your specific struggle is. You still have to be careful and selective as to who you share with. But then again, how many support groups, AA meetings and the like meet on church properties? A whole bunch. That thought dawned on me as I sat in a support group (ACOA) that meet in a church after I had told God in no uncertain terms where He could go!! I have come to the conclusion that those who admit they have a problem make uncomfortable those who have NOT ADMITTED they have a problem, therefore, at least part of the stigmata is explained. Many of the rest simply have not suffered therefore they simply don't know, can't understand what you are going through. I call these the lucky ones. I wish I was lucky. But I am learning to enjoy life. The scar on my left wrist reminds me often that this was not always so.

Anonymous said...

Two weeks ago I checked myself into a psych ward at a hospital. I was voluntarily there for 2 days. I learned a lot about my diagnosis (major depressive disorder). The group therapy taught me that understanding my illness better than anyone is now my business so I can effectively manage it. I also discovered why I was so embarrassed and ashamed about being depressed. Growing up with a bipolar mother, I learned from family members a real negative and shameful belief about mental illness. I have hid it throughout my life because I didn't want to be thought of and viewed like my mother was. It is a new day and I now own and manage my illness. I learned I can manage my medication (anti-depressant and don't stop taking it like I did because I thought I was better), manage my situations in life (job, friends, family, etc.) and manage the old patterns of how I responded in the past to depression "triggers" that didn't work. I now respond in an adult fashion. Don't get me wrong, I have a long way to go and "managing" all this takes time, failing with set backs and it's easy. I found this website today, my mother told me she found out about NAMI last Thursday at a health fair in Arizona. As far as this ASYLUM topic goes, I wrote Dominic at the devil's barn an email requesting that he please reconsider the theme next year. I added a paragraph encouraging him to learn more about mental illness that 58 million people live with. All, I hope this years event is extremely profitable for him so he buy an entirely new theme next year attracting new people. I pray his heart is changed he learns about mental illness and financially supports his local NAMI and NAMI events and programs. Thank you for reading this. Andrea Pennsylvania

Anonymous said...

I live with mental illness and I find the haunts and bizarre things are just part of the holiday fun. Everyone is reinvented via costume on Halloween, from people wearing police uniforms, to maids, to someone dressed up as a banana, or the supernatural and so on. Everything is fun or scary at Halloween and we dress up for fun and an escape especially when we are in a costume where people can't recognize us anyway. We people watch at Halloween. I don't think we are singled out or stigmatized or made an object of, if people dress in a straight jacket.

Anonymous said...

I'm also a witch and there's huge stigma on witches on halloween. I'm Bi-Polar and I see no problem with it. In both cases it's a chance to educate on the matter.

Anonymous said...

I'm mentally ill and have been for 40+ years. I think the world is too PC and this doesn't bother me a bit.

C. Meyer said...

Thank you.

Skipper said...

My father-in-law committed suicide by hanging himself and it always bugs me to see the dummies hung from trees etc. I don't believe I am the only one bothered by seeing them as many others have done the same. I worry that some one may see a hanging dummy and decide to do the same. Kind of encouraging the downtrodden instead of light-hearted fun.

Skipper said...

I can't stand seeing dummies hanging from trees, my father-in-law hung himself. They are a reminder and fuel depression. I'm afraid they may instill the desire to carry out this action for people who battle suicidal thoughts. It is awful to have to deal with tragedy, but then to have it displayed for light-hearted fun; there is nothing lighthearted about hangings.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. You made some very helpful suggestions that I will use

Russell Stubbs said...

I have Major Depression and Severe anxiety disorder. I think we need to pic our battles and i'm just not that upset about this.

Anonymous said...

This is too much. I feel the need to be more compassionate to the needs of ghosts...Witches....skeletons ....and zombies now. It's a freaking scary holliday. Mental illness is a real cause...and it has been a stigma for way too long. I know that all too well.... but there are a s@#$tload of illnesses that could be included in the "ban everything that might offend" category. Lycanthropy? ...No wolfman! Most people know the difference between making fun of someone....and just having fun.

Anonymous said...

How far do we go...I realize we can take correctness too far But is it ok to put on a scull cap and go as a cancer patient or perhaps come to the Halloween party in a wheel chair with your legs missing and come as a war brother has suffered as well with his mental illness for over 30 yrs.I take offense when people do not see mental illness like any other illness.

Anonymous said...

It always bothers me at this time of the year when people put nooses or hang "bodies" from nooses in their trees. Not only is this in extremely poor taste, but it is very hurtful to some people.

Tammy said...

My daughter has struggled with mental illness all her life. But for her Halloween is her absolute favorite holiday. I think for her it is because she can "hide out". In her mind its like she can feel like that is the one day that no one will notice that she is "different". She is very much into the zombies, and scary costumes. But NO clowns! That is her biggest fear, because they have a fake smile all the time. You cannot see what their true emotions are.
She is dressing up as Lydia from Beetlejuice. She says that is the personality that she actually really clicks with and today is the day she can fit the role.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing a dummy at Halloween Spirit that was clearly mimicking an insane person. She was rocking in a rocking chair. I was hurt by that because I rock myself when I am emotionally upset (I have bipolar). Thank you for addressing this. It was something that had bothered me.

Kouu Kenji said...

I think it varies based on the extent. As one person previously said, they bought a straight jacket and loved it. I think it's the characterization of mentally ill as dangerous, such as including a meat cleaver in the costume that makes it stigmatizing.
Another example of the difference would be with a "haunted mental asylum" or the like. If it is similar to just a haunted house, then I have no issue with it. If it is only concentrated on violent mentally ill individuals, such as them torturing locals, then that is stigmatizing.
Otherwise, people should have some fun. It's Halloween.

Anonymous said...

Am I personally haunted by Halloween Stigma? Not really. I'm comfortable saying that depression is a part of what makes me, me. It's a part of m I wish I didn't have, but it's there.

HOWEVER, and it's a big however, I think it's important to use the Halloween portrayal of people with mental illness as dangerous and scary to open a respectful and intelligent dialogue with those who haven't been touched by mental illness, either personally or through someone they love. By keeping the dialogue respectful, perhaps someone who needs help, but who have been afraid to reach for it, will realize they're not alone and there's nothing wrong with asking for help.

Anonymous said...

As a person who lives with mental health challenges, I certainly am offended by the whole haunted asylum theme. I also take umbrage to the Monster Mental Patient nonsense. Aparently we are dangerous both alive and dead. Oh please. You're right about how people would never disrespect cancer or kidney or heart patients. I'm a Certified Peer Support Specialist in Northern Virginia. The police call us "mentals". We are the first ones at whom the newspapers point when there is a murder committed near a psychiatric hospital or a mental health facility. When we protest, some writers become self-righteous about their freedom of the press. They also wouldn't get away with singling out certain religions. After a while, though it is my job in part, to have to defend an ILLNESS is just plain wrong! I'll keep on fighting stigma even if some(many)people are alright with turning this difficult illness into entertainment for others. I hope we all do our best to normalize mental illness in society. I feel that the fact that it hurts so many, makes it NOT OKAY to poke fun at people's suffering and courage.

Scarlett said...

As I was reading this article I felt relieved in finding I was not the only that felt really hurt by the stigma as to the association of halloween and mental illness. I was walking to the train station near my house and I saw this house with a banner over it indicating:Welcome to the Insane Asylum". I felt a mixture of emotions as I saw but hurt was definitely one of them. I don't believe in being angry at people for things like this I get angry at people like those in the media whose job is to be more open minded and raise awareness as to stigma. But I now know that many times its up to people like me who have Bipoalr to educate people. So thank you for this beautifully written article.

Anonymous said...

I am against mental health stigma also. But I think the article is a little much. Its their opinion and influences people who have mental illness.
Halloween is fun. Its all in how you look at it.People love to get dressed up and its okay. They are not out to get anyone,just following the fun of the day.. Like the person who wrote the
article I am entitled to my own opinion. I have Bipolar disorder yes I think some of the costumes are out there. But people are people and have the right to dress up how they want. To me we shouldn't personalize it. Its not just about us. That is my opinion.

Anonymous said...

If this doesn't bother you personally, that's fine, of course, but there is a much larger, very important issue that all thoughtful people should care about. I didn't even pay attention to the particulars in this story, because the association between SCARY and MENTAL ILLNESS is so gargantuan in our society it makes me want to scream and use lots of exclamation points (!!!!!!!) That's what this is about. People with mental illness are scary. It's OK to believe that people with mental illness are scary. It's OK to thoughtlessly perpetuate the idea that people with mental illness are scary.


It's not just good fun. It furthers a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness, and ignorance and fear lead to victimization whether it be stigma or unfair treatment or flat out violence. Come on, this is first grade stuff. We have to confront this stuff for things to get better--and they HAVE to get better. Listen, this is hard stuff. I've lived with this my whole life, am extremely well educated and I still find ways that this bias runs deep in us as Americans. That's the problem--with all these little pieces here and there--it adds up! And this one is so OBVIOUS. We have to KEEP reminding people that mental illnesses are ILLNESSES. People with MI are SICK. Not "crazy". Sick. People who act like idiots dont' need to "take their meds," they need to shut their mouths and take a class, maybe. And mental illnesses are MEDICAL illnesses and should be seen and treated as such.

I think the scariest times for me have been when I was really sick and acting weird and seeing the fear and bewilderment on people's faces--in the doctor's offices I was visiting... That's SO sad! If people who work for DOCTORS dont' know how to think about this, why do we think everyone else will? We have to tell and tell and tell. I have an illness and am in remission. It is not a joke, either. "Crazy" is not funny.

Hell, some of the meanest people I've ever met worked at psychiatric hospitals--until THAT gets better? We still have work to do.

Anonymous said...

At my town, a mattress store actually did a Halloween-themed commercial, which only ran until Oct. 31, which featured a person acting stereotypically in a straitjacket. Needless to say, a couple of people (one of them suffering a mental illness) associated with my local affiliate were offended.