Yesterday, Asda hit the headlines in the UK after it was revealed that they had been selling a Halloween costume under the shockingly offensive, albeist moniker of “mental patient”. The costume, which features a blood-splattered straitjacket, misshapen face with unruly hair and meat cleaver, was subject to huge backlash from mental health sufferers, charities and campaigners (quite rightly so) and was soon recalled.
Tesco also came under fire for a similar costume, a lurid orange boiler suit with the words “psycho ward” (the costume’s name) emblazoned on the chest and back with accompanying jaw restraint. Suggested accessories to this get-up included a machete and blood-stained knife. Following the backlash Asda received, Tesco also removed this costume.
Despite the fact that both companies removed the offending items from their shelves and released public statements of apology, you have to wonder – who on earth gave them the go-ahead in the first place? In my opinion, it’s not so much the costumes themselves that are the problem, it’s the names they’ve been given and the negative connotations about mental illness which they propagate. We see these sorts of stock characters in horror films all the time. It’s clear that Asda and Tesco simply wanted to emulate our favourite horror villains, but in an attempt to avoid copyright decided to give the costumes more generic names.
And what word instills fear in your average person more than the word…”psycho”?! *gasp*
Why is it that that word has become such a ready synonym for words which, in reality, have completely different meanings? “Evil?” “Psycho”. “Homocidal?” “Psycho”. “Criminal?” “Psycho”. You get the picture. As I’m sure most people are aware, the prefix “psycho-” simply means relating to the brain and its inner workings. So why is there still this common misconception that “psycho” connotes these horribly negative, terrifying personality traits?
Fighting back against the stigma spread by the costumes, mental health charities took to social media to ask their supporters to speak up and speak out. Time to Change, a mental health campaign based in England and run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, asked their followers who suffer from mental illness to submit pictures of their own “mental patient” costumes. The response was overwhelming, as the hashtag #mentalpatient buzzed with activity, and the responses were (take or leave more trivial details) all the same – normal people, in normal clothes, posing for a camera.
A real “mental patient” walks the streets in Topshop jeans, Primark jumpers, shoes from everywhere from ShoeZone to Manolo Blahnik. Heck, we could already have bought elements of our own “mental patient” costumes from Asda and Tesco. We may or may not wear make-up. We may or may not bear tattoos, or piercings, or daring hair cuts. We go to the supermarket, to university, take the bus, take the train, ride bikes around town. Funny how when I say “we”, I could be referring to any demographic of the population, isn’t it? Because you know what – sufferers of mental health problems are just the same as anyone else. We’re not suddenly more likely to commit heinous crimes, to be locked up in the creepy, austere facilities of slasher films that these costumes would imply, wielding weapons in an attempt to break free. For the most part, the only things we want dead are our inner demons – those nagging voices of insecurity we try to silence with chemicals, counselling and therapy.
To say this is disgusting is an understatment, Asda and Tesco – please, learn from your mistakes, listen to the voices of your millions of customers who suffer from mental health problems, and next time hopefully you’ll be challenging the stigma rather than encouraging it.