Friendly reminder: A mental health disorder is not Halloween inspiration.
The cultural viewpoint that mental illness can be synonymous with scary entertainment comes up regularly. In 2016, a theme park in California pulled its fall attraction featuring a young psychiatric patient after criticism from mental health advocates. That same year, another theme park in New England caught heat for the same thing.
Other avenues of entertainment such as films and outfits also perpetuate the myth that people with mental illnesses are worthy of fear and disgust. Take insensitive “psycho” costumes, for example, complete with straitjackets and blood. Despite the progress we’ve made on accepting mental illness in our society, new versions of these costumes pop up every single year ― and people keep buying them.
Why this Halloween theme isn’t just “all in good fun”
This kind of inaccurate and negative portrayal of psychological disorders does more than shun people with mental illnesses. It could have a ripple effect on future generations, Doris Schwartz, the former chief operating officer of the Mental Health Association of Westchester County in New York, told HuffPost.
“It just perpetuates the myth that people with mental health conditions are dangerous, harmful and weird,” she said.
Experts also say these costumes and themes are a clear sign that people with mental health disorders are still stigmatized in society.
“The general public fears people who have mental health conditions,” said Susan Rogers, a mental health advocate and director of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse. She added that Halloween attractions that use mental illness as a focal point “only inflame the already existing prejudice and discrimination associated with mental health conditions.”
What society can do moving forward
All of this goes beyond being politically correct or hurting someone’s feelings. There’s evidence that these false stereotypes can be severely damaging: Research shows that the negative perceptions surrounding mental health disorders can prevent people from seeking help. Medical support abates the symptoms of psychological disorders, such as sleep loss, headaches and debilitating thoughts or hallucinations. Untreated mental health conditions are also a major factor in suicides.
It would be nice if seasonal stores stopped stocking these atrocious and insulting costumes. It’d also be nice if theme parks considered how similar themes affect many of the patrons who come visit their attractions. But, as individuals, we can only control what we can control. So what does that mean?
This Halloween, make it a goal to check any personal misconceptions about mental illness. The best way to make improvements as a whole is to increase awareness and education around mental health issues on a personal level, Rogers said.
This can come in the form of reading stories of those who have experience with a mental health condition, or even just getting familiar with the simple fact that mental health disorders are common: Nearly 1 in 5 American adults will experience one in a given year. And most people recover and live full lives with the right treatment.
“Fear comes from ignorance,” Rogers said. “We need a more enlightened general public.”
This post originally appeared in 2016 and has since been updated.