Supermarkets and Stigma

Last night a link to the following product appeared in my Twitter feed.

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One of the UK’s top four supermarkets, Asda, were marketing a Halloween costume consisting of an axe-wielding, blood stained straitjacket under the title “mental patient”.

Someone, somewhere felt that this was appropriate and my mind simply boggles. On the most part, Twitter was a frenzied hive of activity directed at Asda, who eventually (and eight hours after their initial acknowledgement of a complaint) removed the item from sale, apologised and promised a “sizeable” donation to a mental health charity.

Their main error was simply in the name of the costume. This would be a non-issue had they called it a zombie outfit or something like that.

What has concerned me more than anything has been reactions from those who feel this outcry is “political correctness gone mad.”

I’ll share a tweet I received, by way of illustration.
” @Mummykindness @asda there is nothing offensive about this… Why are people hating on asda? Other companies sell the same costumes!”

Other online comments asked:

“Why are people getting so offended at Asda selling this? Don’t other shops sell this too?”

“Wow apparently even Halloween costumes are now over sensitive…”

“So are these people going to ban horror movies now? PC idiots.”

This. This is what I feel the need to address.
These people have completely failed to realise that the greatest barrier to treatment for those suffering from depression is stigma. Suicide accounts for more than 6,000 deaths a year in the UK, three times the amount of those killed in road-traffic accidents. A least ten times this figure attempt suicide and according to charity mentalhealth.org.uk:
“People with a diagnosed mental health condition are at particular risk (of suicide) Around 90% of suicide victims suffer from a psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.”

The costume was not the issue. By any other name it was just another halloween costume. But using such grotesque imagery to depict mental illness perpetuates dangerous stereotypes which, in turn, further ingrains a perception that mental illness is to be feared and ridiculed. This places additional obstacles in the path of those who need to seek help and endangers lives.

To address another online comment:

“While I do agree they could have worded it better, I think this is being taken too far, Freddy Kruger masks etc could upset burns victims, fake arms and legs could upset amputees and knives dripping in blood could upset the families of murder victims. The list is endless!”

I believe this is completely missing the point. This is not simply about “upsetting” those who suffer from mental illness. It’s about stigma and shame and ridicule, not political-correctness-gone-mad. It’s not simply insensitive to suffering, but outright damaging and dangerous.

Depicting a “mental patient” as a blood-thirsty maniac perpetuates an (albeit extreme) ideal that psychiatric treatment is to be avoided at all costs. This is a viewpoint that can literally cost lives.

I’m not suggesting that one fancy-dress costume will push someone over the edge, of course not. But as a society, we need to do everything we can to eradicate the stigma attached to mental health. One in four of us will suffer from a mental illness during our lifetime. In an ideal world, discussing and seeking help for any illness should be equally as straightforward, whether mental or physical in nature.

But looking at the attitudes I’ve seen in the past twenty-four hours, we’ve still got a very long way to go.

For the record, in case you’ve ever wondered, here is what someone who suffers with mental illness looks like…

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If you need help or support with mental illness, please see the following links. You are not alone.
http://www.mind.org.uk/
http://www.rethink.org/
http://www.sane.org.uk/

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26 thoughts on “Supermarkets and Stigma

  1. FABULOUS post. Bloody good on you.

    I’m still too angry to properly form what I want to say about this total mess, but you’ve hit the nail right on the head. This isn’t a point of the PC brigade going on a little spree, this is absolutely not about having to tread on eggshells around sufferers of mental illness, more the opposite – flipping talk about it, know who to talk to, where to go and where to get some help.

    This is about a shockingly poor and damaging judgement call by a massive, massive brand. Along with hundreds, thousands of other preconceptions about those with mental illness – the use of the word mad, crazy etc that altogether just makes it that much harder for people to speak out when they need it the most.

    • Thank you so much! I’m still quietly seething here, but I’ve also noticed that several MH charities and blogs have appropriated the hashtag #mentalpatient today. So in some way there is some positivity coming out of the situation. Much love and thanks again xx

    • Sometimes I use the words mad and crazy but I do think twice. I never use the word mental. It feels wrong to me. It’s thinking about the words we use… why do the anti-PC brigade get so het up about questioning the use of words? No-one is out to hurt them, why do they get so angry? I think it is because they live in a bubble of perceived superiority to certain groups and are threatened when this is questioned.
      Good post, Mummykindness.

  2. An excellent post! I too have suffered for the past 25 years with depression/mental health issues and have been out of the fog for the past 3 years thanks to CBT and a very solid as a rock husband who supported my journey to wellness. You are correct about the stigma that surrounds mental health. Once a friend who no longer is my friend said to me when I was looking for a new job “make sure you don’t tell anyone about your depression/mental health weakness as you will be blacklisted in the media by companies and you won’t get employed. I don’t mind that you are a mess most of the time I just ignore it and let it go over my head”!!!!

    1, why would I tell anyone on an interview
    2, I should be able to talk about it, it’s not a badge of shame!!!
    3, thanks for the support you obviously noticed I needed support but let it go over your head!! Suppose I was suicidal?

    Depression/mental illness is not a weakness as stated to me it’s a very serious illness.

    Oh by the way I was a mental patient on the books with the NHS and The Priory and I usually wore jeans, Russell & Bromley shoes, a shirt and carried my loved mulberry bag! Not once did I wear a straight jacket and carried a meat cleaver to chop people up!!!! ASDA, you got it so wrong. Thank you Rachel for writing your blog x

  3. I had a wee read at your blog, not bad and I understand where you are coming from, however it’s the comments I have to now look at… MummyNeverSleeps with what your saying about the use of the words crazy,mad and things making it harder for people do you then judge shopping channels or adverts that use the words Monday Madness, Crazy prices? The film Psycho is also a degrading term to people with mental illness and nobody is jumping the gun and crying out this is offensive… I think people are just being hypersensitive about things these days.

    All blame and stigmatization is going towards this costume saying that this is how kids will see ‘mental people’ again I tend to disagree Batman is another example of this many of his enemies come from Arkham Asylum and are criminally insane but you don’t see children thinking that people with mental illnesses dress as Mr Freeze, the mad hatter etc…. It’s just a show and many children have the common sense to see it’s not the case…

    I also have been someone who has suffered mental health issues, my final point is that the costume didn’t alter my perception of mental health and you really have to trust in people to understand that’s not how they judge or see people with mental health issues đŸ™‚ Great blog though!

      • Many batman fans know this, there are games for example Batman Arkham Asylum, there are comics even the cartoon on Cartoon Network takes place in the Asylum, the films feature it… Most of them feature the escape from the Asylum and get placed back in during their capture… As a batman fan you can trust me when I say all fans have heard of Arkham Asylum… It’s as big a location in the Batman legacy as the batcave or Gotham City!

    • David thanks for taking the time to reply. I appreciate your comments but I think perhaps some of them are missing the point. This whole “outcry” was never about what kids saw of the outfit of whether it was scary to them. It was about perceptions of mental illness in society and stopping stigma. I think there’s a big difference between movies (which are rated by age) and general items for sale in supermarkets.
      I have several blogger friends who have been driven to tears over this. Coming to terms with having a mental illness is hard enough as it is without being given the impression that the world aligns you with an axe-wielding murderer.

      By saying “you really have to trust in people to understand that’s not how they judge or see people with mental health issues” you show that you see the good in people, and I commend that, I really do. But the point here is that those with mental illness are often not capable of rational thought. They (read:we) need all of the help and support possible and in many cases are not capable of asking for it or seeing a silver lining.

      As a society we need to be breaking down stigma, not looking to justify why if this fancy-dress costume is offensive then surely x, y and z must be offensive too. Whatever way you see it, lots of people were extremely upset by this. It’s not your, my or anyone else’s place to minimise the feelings of an already marginalised section of the human race.

  4. I had the same discussion with my husband this morning, when he didn’t understand the issue. I’m pleased to say he understood my point, about adding to the stigma. It’s a shame people don’t realise it isn’t about political correctness, but about not marginalising a quarter of society just because their illness isn’t easily defined or mended. Well done, your article is clear and concise, thank you.

  5. Pingback: Julie's Notebook | Stigma – Do I Look Mental?

  6. Pingback: Supermarkets and Stigma | Depression's Collateral Damage

  7. As someone who has suffered with mental health on & off for the past 6 years I agree we’re not being all PC about the custume it’s trouble is referring to someone like me as a crazed killer who’s going round killing every1. It’s took me a lot of years to admit to having a mental illness & a lot of self discovery to not b embarrassed about it. So at holloween I’ll go dressed as myself & see how scared people get!

    Well said not trying to take out of holloween just don’t want to branded as a raving axe murderer!

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