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What to Do When You See Mental Illness as a Costume

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As a kid, I loved Halloween. It gave me permission to become whoever I wanted, whether it was a 50s swing dancer, a zombie cheerleader or a bumble bee. I loved that it allowed everyone to be weird together and just laugh.

As I got older and came to terms with my depression and anxiety, I started to hate Halloween. It became a time where I saw my illness portrayed as dangerous and scary in haunted houses or in people’s costumes. I saw people making fun of depression, anxiety and mental illness in a way that completely disregarded that over 20 percent of our population are living with mental illness in any given year.

Protesting costumes that make fun of mental illness is not new. Every Halloween people share their important stories about why it’s not OK to think their illness is a costume. Advocates have been talking about this on for years – pleading folks not to dress up like people who self-harm or psychiatric patients. I want to take that a step further and show you want you can do to stop the trend of mental illness being a costume in the first place.

1. Don’t support stores that sell these costumes. If you are shopping for Halloween and you happen to see a costume making fun of mental illness or portraying us as dangerous, put down your shopping bag and leave the store. If you are feeling up to it, let a manger know why you aren’t shopping at their store today – and that you won’t be back until they no longer carry the offending item or costume. This is especially doable for seasonal Halloween stores – but I would encourage you to do this from big stores (at least around Halloween) if you see them selling items that make fun of mental illness. You can acquire many of the same Halloween-themed items from secondhand stores or other stores that are not portraying mental illness in the same light.

2. Sign or start petitions. As in the case of Walmart’s awful self-harm costume, petitions against offensive costumes have been successful in removing them. A lot of stores don’t realize how harmful these items are to their customers and tend to remove these items quickly. These petitions are also a great place to learn that you are not alone in how these costumes make you feel and can be validating in that way.

3. Talk to your friends. Post about why you don’t think people should be dressing up as a mental illness or psych patient this Halloween. Share your own story of mental illness and how the portrayal of mental illness as a costume increases stigma and makes it harder for people living in silence with mental illness to get
help. You can even contribute to #NotaCostume – which shows a bunch of advocates fighting back against cultures and illnesses being portrayed as costumes.

4. Talk to your local entertainment spots. Help educate folks running haunted houses and Halloween evening events on why it’s not OK to include psychiatric patients in their decorations. Show them the petitions and articles written on the topic – and how other offensive costumes (like those depicting cultures and other illnesses) have been successfully banned from event costumes and folks still have fun. Even if you don’t have the energy to help educate folks – call the venue you are planning on visiting/partying at this Halloween and ask if they allow costumes that make fun of mental illness. If they say they do allow them, don’t attend that event or attraction. Protest with your money. If nothing else – attend or host a house party with friends where offensive costumes on mental illness are explicitly unacceptable and folks will not be allowed in if found wearing a costume like that.

5. Love yourself and friends and family living with mental illness. This is a stressful time for people who care about mental health. Ensure everyone you love has access to the mental health supports they need. During this time – celebrate your recovery in your illness regardless of how far you have come. Take care of yourself, treat yourself to whatever relaxes and renews you. Engage in self-care and take care of yourself.

I hope together we can celebrate and embrace the spooky, weird and funny nature of Halloween — without relying on costumes that are harmful or offensive. I believe in us. We are creative and funny enough to think of costumes that don’t use old stereotypes.

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Stock photo by belchonock

Originally published: October 27, 2016
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