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/