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The Mental Patient Costume Affair

In time, it’s possible that we’ll look back upon the Mental Patient costume affair and consider that the retailers responsible have done our cause a significant service.

Not intentionally, you understand, because at this point, motives – like judgement – remain suspect. Tesco, Asda and Amazon have made a monumental error in selling Halloween outfits bearing titles such as ‘Mental Patient’ and ‘Psycho Ward’, as the haste of their respective retreats underlines.

But in the long run, when the dust has settled, we might reflect on this and realise they’ve done us a considerable favour. If nothing else, it has at least got people talking about mental health, the issues involved and the accompanying stigma.

Mental illness is often suffered in silence. It thrives on loneliness and isolation. In the short-term, in trivialising such things and reinforcing preconceptions and assumptions that couldn’t be more mistaken, there is a risk that great damage can be done. In making this so prominent on the news agenda, however, good can still come from an unfortunate episode for all involved.

For a time after this became a national talking point, #MentalPatient was trending on Twitter. Other related hashtags included #TimeToTalk, #TimeToChange and #WhatStigma.

Some, who have experienced mental health problems at first hand, photographed themselves, and tweeted the pictures to Tesco, Asda and Amazon.

One – known in Twitter circles as @ADadCalledSpen – sent this message with his image: ‘Hey, @Asda, here’s my mental health patient costume. You like?’ The next – @AmiMcgreggy – tweeted a picture of herself in an affectionate embrace with a small child. ‘My 2 year old doesn’t seem to mind my #mentalhealth costume,’ she wrote. There were more – LOTS more – with Mind, the mental health charity, Time to Change, an organisation campaigning against mental health discrimination, and others determined to capitalise on the momentum. Getting people to talk about such issues is, under normal circumstances, a struggle for all involved. That these are not normal circumstances is obvious and it’s important that, having brought such things into the spotlight, we keep them there.

Last night, writing for The Guardian, Alastair Campbell suggested that when it comes to mental health and the associated issues, ‘We’re still in the Dark Ages’. This is something that we don’t disagree with here at Child Psychiatry UK, although we’re working hard to challenge perceptions.

Let’s be honest for a moment, there will be some in our midst who consider the furore an overreaction. Some will argue that it’s just a bit of fun and that the costumes in question are hilarious. Those people are fortunate. Most have probably never faced mental health issues themselves.

One in four people have, however, and, from experience, we know that a lot of them are children and young people. These people don’t wield cleavers and dress in blood-stained clothing. These people don’t have ‘Committed’ stamped on their backs. Stigma does nothing but add to their problems and increase their isolation. It can be, as Mind’s Sue Baker said this morning, ‘Life-limiting and life-threatening’. It’s out there now. It’s time to change.

It’s our opinion that apologies and donations are appropriate, but in making them, we don’t think the retailers responsible have gone far enough. Given their respective resources, Asda, Amazon and Tesco could turn this around and back a large-scale anti-stigma campaign that could make a major difference to how psychiatric patients are perceived.

In giving mental health their genuine support, it is in their power to do our cause a significant service. It’s up to them now.

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