Friday, 27 September 2013

The 'Mental Patient' scandal - my thoughts

I've been slightly delayed in writing a post about the latest news to grip the mental health world, partially because I've needed a couple of days to fully absorb what it was that I wanted to say on the topic (also partially because of the stresses and strains of being a Fresher, and coming down with an awful virus which has taken it out of me this week!)

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past few days, there was internet and public outrage at the discovery that supermarket chain 'Asda' had launched a Halloween costume entitled 'Mental Patient'. It was later released that other large chains 'Tesco' and 'Amazon' had brandished similar costumes, entitling them 'Psycho Ward', and so on.

The costume itself (Asda), for anyone who hasn't see it, displays a blood splattered straitjacket with ragged edges and featured a mask and a fake meat-cleaver.

The description entitles '"Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume... it's a terrifying Halloween option."

The word spread on Twitter like wildfire and many tweeters, including myself and a variety of celebrity ambassadors, such as Stan Collymore, and Denise Welch, tweeted Asda disgusted and appalled at the classic ancient stereotypes of those with mental health problems, being reused in the 21st century, an age where all campaigners like myself are trying to do is to remove the stigma.

What annoys me the most about this whole story, you may ask? For me, it wasn't the costume itself. I've never been a Halloween person but I do understand that I lot of people like to dress up as zombies and witches and whatever appeals to them. What isn't okay, is the immediate linking of a scary, murdering, just-escaped-from-the-asylum serial killer to a sufferer of mental health problems, or a 'mental patient'. Asdas decision to sell this costume clearly demonstrates the stigma that is still clearly apparent and shows just how much more work needs to be done.

One of the worst things, for me, about suffering from a mental health problem, is the stigma that it immediately carries alongside it. And I attempt to challenge this stigma at all costs by being as open and honest as possible about my illness. Mostly to educate. Mostly to show people that I'm a normal person. Mostly to show others that I for the most part, function, I'm in a long-term relationship, I am studying for a degree, I have a job and I try and live my life. I don't, go around brandishing axes and murder weapons willy nilly and never have I once, throughout my struggle with mental health problems for almost 10 years, inflicted harm on anyone.

People still have such an ancient impression of those with mental health problems, the sort of terrifying images you see on films such as 'Psycho' and 'Shutter Island', the image of the 'lunatic' and 'madhouse' asylums of the 18th and 19th centuries, with bars surrounding the buildings heightened to prevent escape and continuous restraint of patients, patients who were seen to be dangers to themselves and the general public. Today, in the 21st century, although general mental health care and hospitals have improved greatly, there is so much more to mental health then the classic 'psychosis' and 'manic schizophrenia' stereotypes that are so often thought of at the mentioning of 'mental health'. Does someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Body Dysmorphic Disorder go around inflicting needless harm onto others? No. Neither do people with psychosis, and schizophrenia. Or depression. Or anorexia. Or PTSD. The truth is, we are normal people. And what makes us feel like we are singled out and outcast from the rest of society is the stigma and assumptions that our labels we carry with us mean that we are automatically a threat to society.

Some people took to Twitter to say that we were all just 'over-reacting', that it was 'just a costume', and 'just a joke'. These people have clearly never experienced mental health discrimination or know what it is like to have those around you show complete ignorance and disrespect towards you just because of a label that you possess. One person said that if we stopped making such a song and dance about it, then the no-one would know about it and all this negative attention wouldn't be focused on us so much. If we didn't do what was right and made this public outcry, it would make it seem that somehow it is acceptable for retailers to sell these obviously offensive and disgusting costumes. It then makes it okay for people to see us as the violent knife-wielding psychos that people want to believe. Either that or people just refuse to believe that mental health problems exist in the first place, draw a veil over it and remain ignorant. That isn't acceptable and I don't want to keep growing up in a world where it is made acceptable.

A lot of people have made this point already and I am just going to re-iterate it, if it were offensive costume of a physical illness, such as a cancer patient, someone with a learning disability or other terminal illness, it would not have been okay. And rightly so. Yet, we all have our mental health too and in today's society, where 1 in 4 people struggle in and out on a daily basis with mental health problems (myself and ASDA workers included), surely it's important that we reiterate the fact that this form of discrimination is NOT okay, mental health is an important as physical health and it is nothing to be feared or ashamed of?

I must say as a regular Twitter user I am proud in a way of the multitude of positive responses which in turn lead to the costume being taken down and ASDA donating a total of £25,000 to Mind as an apology. We fought, we fought hard and we showed them that they were wrong. And we succeeded. All we need to do now is keep fighting. Keep campaigning. And never to give up on that fight. I'm joining the Time to Change Youth Panel next month and for me, there's never been a better time to do so and what has occurred this week has given me that strength I need to try as hard as I can to make a difference.

Since the news of these costumes were made public, many tweeters have also been using the hashtag
#mentalpatient to proudly display their own 'mental patient' costumes. Surprisingly to ASDA, Tesco and Amazon, these images do not contain weaponry or blood in sight. Shocking really. Just following the hashtag shows that a mostly positive response has emerged from an issue so utterly ignorant and it really is refreshing to see. I'm proud of you all!

I celebrated my 21st birthday last weekend. Here is my 'mental patient' costume that I wore to my birthday party. Does my fake-tan, make-up or pricy dress deter from the fact that I have a mental health problem in anyway? Of course not. Because mental health problems do not discriminate. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I look around crowded lecture halls at University and know that at least 1 in 4 people in that room, including myself, is fighting some sort of internal mental battle. You'd be surprised at the amount of people there are.

We can only appear scary and terrifying to you all if you make it that way. If you, the stigmatisers (if that is in fact a word, if not, it is now), allow it to be possible. So perhaps if you're one of the people criticising the campaigners for 'making a big deal of nothing', get your head out of the gutter and realise just how severe mental health problems are and how much the discrimination affects us each and everyday.

We're not quite there yet, unfortunately. But we will be, one day. Quitting to fight for what I believe in is never the answer.


  1. A very well written post, and one I very much agree with !! It wasn't even the costume that was offensive, more the use of the words 'mental' and 'terrifying' which just shows us how backward some attitudes still are toward mental illness. Why did no one at a senior sales/ retail position not flag it up as potentially offensive before it went on sale?
    Like yourself and many other brave bloggers, I've opened up about my experiences with mental illness to the internet to try and break down stigma, and then things like this happen and it just makes me feel pretty disappointed :( I was also kind of disappointed that some people were so quick to fob off the Twitter backlash as being too overly 'politically correct', but as you say they'd definitely feel different if it directly affected them.
    Let's hope this is a step forward in the fight against stigma and changing attitudes, and proving that people with mental illness CAN and WILL stand up for themselves in the masses to put things right!
    Also, you look stunning in your #mentalpatient outfit !

    Daisy x

  2. Excellently written Amy. It's scary to think that in 2013, we are STILL so arrogant when it comes to mental illness.
    And, if I'm honest, if everyone who is mentally ill looked like you, I'd prefer them any day ;) xxxx

  3. Hi Amy! I really like your blog. It looks very nice and I'm happy to visit. Cheers!

    Check this out too:

  4. That is one hell of a scary 'mental patient' outfit you have on there ;) like you mentioned, the positives to take from this is how big, quick and empowering the fight back was! It does make you wonder about who was involved in the decision-making for the costumes though. They should be made to go on a mental health awareness course or something! x