Fight Mental Health Stereotypes for a Happier Halloween

pumpkin

Halloween is coming! Children and adults alike are carving pumpkins, dressing in costumes, and getting ready for an exciting evening of trick-or-treating. For those suffering with mental health issues, however, this can be an especially difficult time of year as they are reminded of the heavy stigma associated with their illness. A drive through your city or a stroll down the aisles of your local department store is all it takes to confirm that offensive stereotypes are alive and well when it comes to the mentally ill. Billboards and advertisements depicting “Haunted Asylum” or “Psychopath Sanctuary” attractions are hard to miss. “Mental Patient” costumes, complete with straightjackets, perpetuate the stereotypes further.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is an advocacy group that is fighting these stereotypes and pressuring businesses to remove offensive attractions and costumes. “NAMI loves Halloween as much as anyone else,” says Bob Corolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations, in a recent blog. “But would anyone sponsor a haunted attraction based on a cancer ward? How about a veterans’ hospital with ghosts who died from suicide while being treated for posttraumatic stress disorder?”

NAMI encourages its members to help raise awareness about the problem in their own communities. Corolla says that the first step is to personally contact sponsors of “insane asylum” attractions or stores that carry offensive costumes. In some cases, small changes to the attraction or its marketing can make a big difference. Further steps include enlisting others to make calls and write emails of protest. Local television stations and newspapers can be educated about the problem—and many are willing to cover a protest as a news event.

Will it make any difference? In response to protests from mental health advocates, the U.K. superstore Asda (a Wal-Mart company) and major grocery chain Tesco were persuaded to remove offensive costumes from their shelves. Both stores apologized for their insensitivity; Asda called it “a completely unacceptable error” and has donated £25,000 to the U.K. mental health charity Mind.

Corolla cautions that you should be prepared for a backlash when people feel that you are criticizing their fun. But even then, you may be more effective than you know. “Even if it seems that too many people disagree with your position,” he says, “you win simply by raising awareness.”

Visit the NAMI Web site to learn more about what you can do to fight the stigma against mental illness.

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