With summer about to go on its year-long holiday, giving way to autumn the leaves will start falling off the trees and the weather might get slightly colder. With this in mind, I thought I had better start thinking about my next ‘mental patient’ costume. I might need some new cardigans, new jumpers and perhaps warmer blouses and trousers. That will be my new ‘mental patient’ costume. The funny thing is they are readily available on all good High Streets and are virtually invisible to wearers of these costumes. So undoubtedly they will have maximum scary impact on Halloween.
My opening paragraph of course refers to the horrible story which broke yesterday surrounding to fancy dress costumes available for purchase on the websites of two of the U.K.’s biggest supermarket chains, Asda and Tesco.
The costumes themselves were very stereotypical in nature. A white coat stained with blood and I think you can imagine the rest. The costumes are deeply offensive to anybody first with a mental health problem and secondly to anybody with any level of social awareness at all.
It is not only the costumes themselves that inherently bother me. I would love to understand the rationale behind these costumes being designed and approved for retail in the first place.
It would be disingenuous of me not to say that the costumes have now been removed from both websites and the companies have apologised. However anybody can apologise for anything. I am curious as to how this happened in the first place.
You see you may think I went a bit mad and behaved like a bit of a nutter in my opening paragraph. Went a bit crazy even. But my point is that people with mental health problems are visually indistinguishable from anybody else. It’s not like the education system; there is no uniform. We do not have tattoos or neon signs joyfully declaring our mental health problems. My point is that by suggesting that mental health problems can be reduced to some kind of stereotypical scary costume is pandering to the very lowest of common denominators.
There’s nothing inherently special about people with mental health problems. I bet if you walked into your local town or city centre today you would pass at least 20 and you wouldn’t even know. This figure becomes even more concentrated when you think of people living together in large institutions like universities for example.
We have to strive for parity between the seriousness of physical health problems and mental health problems. For the two are just as deadly and just as lethal.
An unfortunate quirk of society though is that it handles things much better that it can see. You can see a broken leg, but unfortunately we don’t yet have the ability to put a broken soul into the x-ray machine or under the microscope. If only it were that simple.
Earlier this year I was privileged and proud to watch the ‘Mad World’ season on BBC Three. One of my highlights of those series was the programme Don’t Call Me Crazy set in the McGuinness unit in Manchester. I wrote a blog about each episode of the show when it aired so I don’t want to repeat myself here.
What I will say is that the programme depicted with aplomb the diversity and breadth of mental health problems, as well as the diversity and breadth of people suffering with them.
There is also a great deal of shame and stigma around people with mental health problems still. People are scared and frightened to admit they need help as we are worried I suppose about how that be perceived. I can guarantee you that the release of those costumes by Tesco and Asda will not have helped in that effort. The main problem I would say for people with mental health problems is people themselves. People can be very cruel, verging on disgusting if they do not understand mental health problems. To them it is something they don’t understand and they do not make any effort to understand it.
Having filled in a survey for Mind recently I began to think we were making some progress. After the television programmes aired, I felt optimistic about understanding of mental health and I think the participants in those shows shared my sentiment. It takes a lot to go on television and to expose your soul especially about a taboo topic like mental health.
Mental health problems bring in their wake real suffering real anger and real sadness. Not to mention isolation and loneliness. People with mental health problems are in pain already. Imagine a throbbing pain in your heart or your leg. Would you expect people to mock that? You could probably reasonably expect some kind of analgesia to alleviate your symptoms.
As a mental patient though you get the privilege of a costume made especially for you. How kind! I think what really annoys me about this situation is that it sends a message that it is okay to talk about people with mental health problems, to openly mock them in a perverse game of Chinese whispers in which they cannot participate.
Would you have a wheelchair costume? Or maybe a white stick costume if we are going to be inclusive? No. Then this is not acceptable either.
There is nothing funny about mental health problems I say to the Supermarket Satire Department. They are a constant and unrelenting Russian roulette of sadness happiness and suicide at times.
People with mental health problems are not some fictional characters in a book or from a film. In this vein a Buzz Lightyear costume would be perfectly acceptable.
I am saddened by these events because I am fed up and angry with mental health being the last taboo. It gives those who mock carte blanche to do it and they say it is okay. They can wear those costumes with ambivalence and dissonance because it is not their problem. And this is part of the problem with our Western stiff upper lip culture. We are too happy to walk by on the other side and not help the person who needs that help the most. We are told to walk by when we see somebody crying in the street because it is not our business. We selfishly worry about how we will be perceived rather than thinking about the person who needs help.
I don’t mind telling you I take antidepressants, I’ve been a mental outpatient and I’m proud because it gives me understanding that the people who sanctioned the design of those costumes for a cheap gimmick will never have in a million years.
My biggest fear is not though for people receiving treatment currently. Naturally I wish them all the best and send my support and love to them. However my fear is that the people sitting at home struggling and ruminating will have their worst fears confirmed by the crass and inexcusable actions of the supermarkets. People already think society doesn’t care, society doesn’t get it society doesn’t understand it and nobody gives a fuck. The last thing you want to do against this backdrop of stigma and titillation is seek help.
The one thing I take heart from is that against this backdrop of a proven lack of understanding of mental health in wider society is that people have come together via social media to form their own community, to build their own fortress insulated from the cruelty of the world. And before anybody says that’s not healthy don’t even start. Because when every day is a struggle sometimes you need a safe space and safe people to talk to.
I was impressed with the way people from all walks of life united in fury against the supermarkets yesterday. It showed them at least through collective action what is and what is not acceptable in the public eye.
Some say that people doing this kind of thing, rocking against the supermarkets have too much time on their hands. I say no no and no again. The same parity has to be established between mental health conditions and physical conditions. People are entitled to respect empathy support and compassion at the most basic level with whatever problem they are struggling with. But still in 2013 somebody is still likely to garner more sympathy for a plastered leg than for a plastered soul.
Of course we in mental health costumes are just ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives. But at times we slip, sometimes things get difficult and at that time mockery and derision is the last thing I would want or welcome.
People die because of mental health problems continuously. Day in day out suicide features in the news. Ask questions of people with mental health problems. We are not nutters bloodstained in white coats we are people just like you. We are your next door neighbour, your bus driver your milkman and your friends. As an empathic person I always try and support those who need it in a limited way I can on social media. You don’t need to wear a costume to do that – the only requirement is that you do not think mental health problems are something to be made fun of.
As a caveat I’m aware that not everybody will find this the most offensive thing ever. However we have to think of more than just ourselves. We have to think of the person being bullied and tortured because of their mental health problems. We have to think of those who self harm who may indulge in unhealthy coping mechanisms as a result of these costumes, and other multitudes of people who suffer in silence. I can assure Tesco and Asda that this will not have helped to reduce that fear in the minds of people with mental health problems. The good thing is that those who care, those professionals those friends and allies who tirelessly give their time and energy are helping to do that already. I say thank goodness for my friends with mental health problems and their costumes of ordinary clothes. They are often without a shadow of a doubt the most understanding people of all.