Who’s afraid of a Halloween costume?

The idea that the mentally ill are likely to be violent comes from the government far more than from stores selling fancy dress.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

The UK supermarket chains Asda and Tesco found themselves subject to much criticism this week following advertisements on their websites offering Halloween costume for sale.

In the case of Asda, buyers were offered a horror mask, fake blood on clothing and a plastic meat cleaver, accompanied by a photograph to illustrate the product. It was described as a ‘zombie fancy dress costume’ on the internet link to the webpage. If that description had been kept perhaps few people would have heard of it, except for some children who would have bought one and had some fun scaring their friends on Halloween. However, once the page was accessed the ‘zombie’ had become a ‘mental patient’, with the product details reading: ‘Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume…. it’s a terrifying Halloween option’. Tesco offered an orange boiler suit emblazoned on the back with ‘Psycho ward’, with a plastic jaw restraint and the chance to buy a machete to ‘complete the look’.

Both stores came under attack from many campaigners who used social media to accuse them of promoting unhelpful stereotypes around mental illness and dangerousness, in the process increasing the stigma and fear that can blight the lives of many people suffering from mental-health problems. Those voicing their outrage included some high-profile sufferers of mental ill-health. Alastair Campbell, the former New Labour director of communications, who has written about his mental problems, tweeted: ‘Look what Asda’s selling… what possesses these people?’ Stan Collymore, a former footballer who has had several episodes of depression, also criticised the use of such a ‘stereotype’, tweeting: ‘Do you actually realise how many people are hanging themselves because of being frightened of the stigma?’

Mental-health charities also joined the criticism. Rethink, for example, tweeted that it was ‘stunned’, while Sue Baker of Mind told BBC Radio 5 that the worst thing about the costume was that it reinforced outdated stigma-causing stereotypes about people with mental-health problems, in particular ‘the assumption that we’re going to be dangerous, knife-wielding maniacs and that is simply not the case’. My own Twitter account has had posts and retweets from a variety of service users, professionals and campaign groups almost exclusively expressing outrage over the supermarkets’ behaviour. In response to such criticism, both stores have withdrawn the product from sale, offered apologies, and Asda has announced that it is to make ‘a very sizeable donation’ to Mind.

Now, in my opinion, the description of the outfit as that of a mental patient was insensitive and was bound to upset some people. The companies could have saved themselves some criticism if they had stuck with the zombie tag. Nevertheless, the outraged response to the costume is not only blowing the whole thing out of proportion, it also has some extremely concerning aspects to it.

First, there is an assumption that the linking of ‘mental patient’ with the costume will increase the stigma that people with mental illness can face, a sort of ‘monkey see, monkey do’ attitude towards the general public. In addition, it is worth noting that attitudes to mental illness are improving. For example, the percentage of people who agree that ‘it is frightening to think of people with mental problems living in residential neighbourhoods’ has fallen from 26 per cent to 12 per cent between 1997 and 2011.

It is also very important to note that such changes have come about at the same time that many of today’s trilling tweeters have had no compunction over linking mental illness with violence. For example, where was Alastair Campbell’s outrage when the government of which he was a key member was amending mental-health legislation to introduce community treatment orders (CTOs) and abolish the ‘treatability clause’, measures that the government said were necessary due to the dangerousness of the mentally ill? Many government policy documents on mental healthcare implicitly linked mental illness and violence, carrying titles such as ‘Safety First’ and ‘Avoidable Deaths’. The government has invoked the spectre of the mad axe-man to far greater effect than the two supermarkets. What possesses such people, Alastair?

Once professionals had the power to discharge patients on CTOs, they embraced it, with the number of patients subject to one being 10 times higher than the government originally forecast. In 2012, there were 4,764 people subject to such orders – 473 more than in 2011. As I have previously argued on spiked, such high usage has led to the suspicion that CTOs are being used to cover the backs of professionals in case something goes wrong, rather than for the benefit of the patient. In other words, there is a presumption of dangerousness that carries far more significance for mental patients than anything Asda or Tesco have come up with.

Similarly, many professionals and their regulatory bodies are also prone to equate mental illness with violence. Whenever one of my students disclosed that he or she had a psychiatric diagnosis, I often had to argue that the diagnosis should be considered irrelevant, it was someone’s ability to complete the course in a satisfactory and professional manner, with support if necessary, that was important. My view was frequently ignored, with medical reports being deemed necessary before such students were registered with the now disbanded General Social Care Council.

The level of distrust towards people with mental-health issues from many within government, the mental-health professions and their regulatory bodies should be more of a concern than an insensitive, but otherwise harmless Halloween costume. However, if the campaign against Asda and Tesco has elements of hypocrisy from many of the complainants, it also sadly highlights the way identity politics thrives on offensiveness and the way in which a small social media campaign can browbeat both individuals and organisations into compliance with a certain viewpoint. Identity politics thrives on recognition and offence. In this respect, the search for, and finding of, offensiveness and the resultant apology validates the individual’s identity. In this sense, perhaps the ‘mental patient’ costume has fulfilled a purpose for the offended.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His most recent book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Ken is a panelist at the Battle of Ideas satellite debate Sick children or sick society? at the Institute of Psychiatry in London on Tuesday 15 October.

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Topics Politics


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