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Hey Retailers, My Mental Illness Is Not Your Halloween Costume

It’s October 31 and the town is bustling with people dressed up as princesses, superheroes, big screen characters — anything you can imagine. You hear the joyous chatter flooding dimly lit sidewalks in between trick-or-treat stops as they fill up their bags with chocolates and candies. It’s a night of self-expression and fun. Yet, perhaps Halloween can also be darker than it seems. Halloween can be a merciless masquerade.

Halloween can be an exciting day to dress up in an outfit you wouldn’t normally wear and go out to parties or events. While many costumes are harmless acts of self-expression or fulfillment of the fantasy to be someone else for the day or your favorite character, there are unfortunately some “costumes” that cause great harm to the mental health community. Many party goers may choose a horror-themed costume or a pop culture character. Others, however, dress up in costumes for Halloween that are also available in the store, fitting snugly on the clothing rack next to the others, waiting to be chosen, yet these costumes are unequivocally offensive.

Part of the issue is these offensive “costumes” are available to be bought in the first place. They have been popularized year after year and have become normalized by society. Costumes that include the words “mental patient,” “psycho,” or “insane asylum” are options that should be avoided at all costs. These “costumes” are incredibly offensive to the mental health community as they exploit those with mental illness and minimize the torture and abuse of those struggling who were locked away, deemed unfit to be in society. Those locked away often received lobotomies and other inhumane, gruesome treatments instead of receiving ethical care. While such costumes may seem harmless to some who may not fully understand the extent of harm being done, these labels thoughtlessly slapped onto a plastic bag with cheap, yet harmful contents in the name of raking in money carry a great amount of pain and stigma.

Mental health care has improved since the 1800s when asylums were the solution to a person “acting crazy,” but there are still unethical and inhumane practices being done today on those with mental illness. We still have a long way to go as a society and within health care itself. To dress up as a mental health patient is to make a mockery of oneself and to blatantly overlook the deep pain and suffering of this country’s past and present. Suffering is suffering and is not to ever be made lightly of.

In 2011, an “Anna Rexia” Halloween costume was being sold online by a costume and beauty store chain. Naturally, the costume and its creators received massive amounts of negative press. “Anna Rexia” sensationalizes the mental illness anorexia — the eating disorder with the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders. The “costume” consisted of a short and tight black dress with a skeleton on it, a tape measure to hold around one’s waist, and a badge reading “Anna Rexia,” as if to boast a “cute” and “clever” nickname for a life-threatening mental illness. The public outrage was notable, so much so that a coordinator at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and a Change.org petition denouncing it forced the companies to cease selling the costume.

As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, I recall feeling so confused and upset in 2011 when I watched the public outrage unfold surrounding this costume surfacing online. It made me furious to imagine what they’d include if they made a costume for bulimia, too. Costumes are supposed to be a means of entertainment. To glorify one’s restricting of food and becoming dangerously obsessed with their size is deplorable. Today, I wish more 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 is incredibly common today to go online or into a store selling Halloween costumes and find “mental patient” or similarly listed costumes. We need these costumes to be discontinued. This country’s history of treatment of mental health patients is incredibly horrifying. We must not forget. Mental illness can present in ways that can make others feel scared, but we must remember to be scared for the person struggling and not of the person struggling.

When an individual dons a costume of an “insane asylum patient,” many of which include a straightjacket and restraints, it does an incredible disservice to the mental health community, as if to say this is what we all look like in our illness and furthermore, as if you are an evil person for needing to be restrained. Not to mention, there still are mental health facilities today that do not treat patients with the compassion or respect they deserve to be met with. The history of how mental health patients were often treated so inhumanely — and even today — is not a costume.

My struggles are not a costume. How someone is mistreated or protected in their darkest moments is not a costume. While the history of mental healthcare is horrid and unjust, we must also see how far we have come. There is no way to erase the past pain “insane asylums” have inflicted on countless lives; however, one of the first steps toward healing is to ensure we are not disrespecting those who struggle with mental illness. We must not wear costumes that parody an individual’s pain. A costume can shock, entertain, or scare others, but a costume simply isn’t a costume anymore if it harms a group of people — notably almost 20% of the population in the United States.

I encourage you to reach out to stores selling such inappropriate costumes and educate them on the history of mental health care and advocate for all of us whose lives have been touched by mental illness. There is no excuse why stores still sell these wearable depictions of cruelty and imprisonment. Not everyone may understand why these costumes bring such heavy pain to those who struggle with mental illness, but with open discussions, we have the opportunity to explain why stigma is so dangerous, how stigma has harmed us, and how we can break away the stigma and let the light in.

As Ann Voskamp has said, “Shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces.” Let’s be the safe spaces for those of us with mental illness so we can foster healing. By speaking up and asking people to be mindful of what Halloween costumes they wear, we are actively creating a world that is more understanding, and ultimately, less stigmatizing.

It’s October 31 and the town is bustling with people dressed up as princesses, superheroes, big screen characters — anything you can imagine. What will you be wearing?

Unsplash image by Dollar Gill