Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. It's a magic, liminal space between dark and light, where we can explore and play with meaning and identity -- we can be witches or fairies, Jedis or Dr. Whos, police officers or surgeons. Also, its central rite is the Great American Chocolate Swap, and at our house, the kids pay a pretty hefty Almond Joy tax.
As my husband and I were sorting through our assortment of clown wigs, witch hats, devil's horns, and angel wings, I told him, "I think this year I'll shave my head, put on one of those horrible tie-in-the-back hospital gowns, stick a fake IV in my arm, and go as a cancer patient."
Ed stared at me. "You're kidding, I hope," he said.
"Better yet, let's go as the Cancerous Family!" I continued. "We can put skull caps on the kids and make them look just like poster children for St. Judes. Everyone will think it's hilarious!"
"Oh, I get it," he said. "You're talking about that awful Modern Family Halloween asylum of horror."
My husband knows me well. I've experienced two difficult bouts of depression in my life. Now, one of our children has bipolar disorder. Our son has been hospitalized three times, and he has been sent to juvenile detention because of his illness. So we weren't laughing when ABC ignored the pleas of the nation's largest mental health advocacy organizations and re-aired the Modern Family "Awesomeland" episode.
Most of us would agree that making fun of cancer patients isn't funny. Anyone who has watched a loved one struggle with cancer knows how courageous cancer patients are, and how difficult this illness is. My father's three-year battle with acute myelogenous leukemia involved experimental drugs that aged him 30 years in the space of months. He died when he was just 50, leaving my mother to raise my four younger brothers on her own.
But my mother wasn't completely on her own. She had tremendous community support--cards, casseroles, rides to soccer practice for the boys while she stayed with my dad in the hospital, mentors for the boys after he died. My dad's insurance covered his pricey medical bills. The community still remembers my father fondly, and mom's married friends still include her in their social activities.
While mental illness is no less tragic than cancer, the community support just isn't there. Instead, individuals and families feel that they have to hide their struggles, which are every bit as heroic as those endured by cancer patients. My father was praised when he took life-prolonging medication with toxic side effects; people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder who take life-saving medications with difficult side effects are told they should just "snap out of it" and manage their condition without medication. I've experienced this sad truth as a parent of a teenager who has bipolar disorder. Mental illness is just not something we are supposed to talk about.
Why do we treat mental illness so differently? The science is increasingly clear: mental illness is physical illness. And yet when I tried to explain to ABC's Modern Family last year why their tasteless Halloween show was so offensive to me and my son (read "Dear Claire Dunphy" here), many comments complained about my oversensitivity or dismissed my concerns as "crazy" politically correct extremism.
Let me break it down for you. Here are five reasons that making fun of people with mental illness at Halloween is not only tacky and politically incorrect, it's downright cruel:
- Mental illness is not a choice. You have nearly unlimited choices when it comes to Halloween costumes. But people who suffer from mental illness do not have a choice about whether they are ill or not.
- You wouldn't make fun of people with other illnesses. Would you think it was funny to dress up as someone with cancer? How about someone in a wheelchair? Or a blind person? Most of us understand that these things are not funny--they're offensive, and they mock the very real struggles of individuals who are trying to live their best possible lives with very real obstacles. But because mental illness is an "invisible" disability, we discriminate against people who suffer from it, evidenced by the "hilarious" television shows we watch and the costumes we wear at Halloween.
- The insane asylums of the past actually were sometimes pretty scary--but the new ones, prisons, are even scarier. Why would you want to remind people how bad mental hospitals were? And why aren't you demanding that we stop sending people to jail because of their brain diseases? It's time we get the community mental health centers we were promised--and provide long-term therapeutic options for patients with more serious illness who are currently warehoused in prisons or nursing homes.
- People with mental illness are not actually scary. Halloween-shop mental patient costumes, with their straitjackets and gore, reinforce the same false message the media portrays to us by talking about mental illness only within the context of rare events like mass shootings. In fact, when treated, people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, though they are more likely to be the victims of violence.
- People with mental illness are not "those people." They are "us." An article in The Guardian pointed out this fact by suggesting "scientifically accurate" Halloween costumes for mental patients (hint: dress up like you do every single day, because that's what people with mental illness look like).
This year, I'm encouraging my friends to use Halloween to advocate for mental illness in positive ways. On October 31, take a picture of yourself looking fabulous, and tweet it with the hashtag #mentalpatient. Let's show the world what a real mental patient looks like. They look like you and me.
But if you decide to dress up as a Modern Family version of a mental patient for Halloween this year, please don't come trick or treating to my house. You scare me.