Halloween Stereotypes Cause Concern For Some Mental Health Advocates

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On Halloween, scary costumes and haunted houses are prevalent. But “scary” to some might be offensive to others. There are some haunted houses in Northeast Ohio that raise questions about mental health stereotypes.

One local haunted house features an attraction called the “Mental Ward,” and the description on the website asks: “Are you brave enough to step inside with the mentally insane?” Another haunted trail calls its route through the forest a “Psycho Path,” and a haunted prison advertises its “extremely psychotic inmates.”

Becky Fela works for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. She’s also coped with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder since childhood. She says Halloween can be a fun holiday, but seeing mental health portrayed in a negative way upsets her. She’s seen nooses and bodies hanging from trees used a decoration, which can be hurtful to those who lost loved ones to suicide.

“It isn’t fun when little kids are seeing these yard displays of body pieces and they don’t know if they’re real or not,” Fela said.

Associate professor of psychiatry at Northeast Ohio Medical University Erik Messamore says one of the reasons why haunted attractions and costumes use mental illness as a fear tactic is a lack of understanding.

“There are, I mean obviously, a great deal of negative stereotypes,” Messamore said. “I think, in part, this relates to general lack of knowledge. When we don’t understand something, it’s a common response to be fearful of something.”

But Messamore says psychosis is actually fairly common. According to NAMI, psychosis is a disruption to a person’s thoughts and perceptions that make it difficult to recognize what’s real and what isn’t. It can be the result of a major life change or a traumatic life event.

“We really should have a conversation about how our brains work and what the symptoms would be if the brain is not working optimally,” Messamore said. “We don’t do that. Instead, we don’t talk about it and therefore people are fearful of it, and when someone is behaving or speaking in ways that don’t make sense, we either run away, typically, laugh a little bit, worry, get scared, or sometimes respond by being mean.”

One way to make sure people’s costumes are respectful is to ask whether it would be appropriate if it were any other physical illness, says Karen Kearney of the Mental Health and Addiction Advocacy Coalition.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that mental illness is an illness like any other, so why would we stigmatize it in a way that we wouldn’t stigmatize a physical illness?” Kearney said. “For example, there wouldn’t be anything negatively portraying a diabetes patient or a cancer patient, so why would there be something like that for someone with a mental illness?”


Credit: NAMI

Kearney says mental health issues are more common than people think, with about 1 in every 5 people affected, according to data from NAMI. That means choosing a costume that depicts mental illness could offend a close friend of family member. Kearney says if you see a haunted house attraction or costume that depicts mental health in a negative way, it’s important to voice these concerns.

“I think it also continues to encourage discrimination, both socially and in the workplace. The more that those images are presented publicly, the more people think that when they’re not educated about what mental illness really is.”

Fela—who has used her own mental health problems to help others who are struggling—says the negative images of mental illness can be a deterrent for those who should be seeking treatment. She says when we start to view mental illness as just another disease, we’ll stop being afraid, and do more to promote treating the brain just like every other organ in the body that needs treatment when it’s ailing.

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