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Choose not to fuel stigma this Halloween

Thursday, 13 October 2016 Nicole Williams

Nicole discusses her feelings on mental health related Halloween costumes and how they can contribute to stigma.

Nicole is studying health and social care at uni, enjoys all things creative, loves being outdoors and is keen to travel. She tweets at @_nicolesjourney

I was recovering from anorexia nervosa when I first saw the ‘Anna Rexia’ Halloween costume.

Seeing it advertised using a woman posing in a skimpy dress with a skeletal print made me feel sick to my stomach. In my vulnerable frame of mind the costume added to the anorexia driven thoughts– it’s an illness not to worry about, an illness that doesn’t need treatment, nothing serious.

It felt like that dress was taking all seriousness away from the illness, an illness that kills and puts so many people through what feels like a lifetime of torture, instead portraying the monster that is anorexia as ‘sexy’ and ‘fun’.

There is nothing ‘sexy’ or ‘fun’ about anorexia, nor any illness for that matter, yet why did this choice, this outfit seem okay to sell? Okay to wear? Sure, it was taken off sale eventually, but it should never have been up online or associated with Halloween in the first place.

Sadly it isn’t the first upsetting costume I’ve seen - during my recovery I have seen ‘Mental Patient’ and ‘Psycho Ward’ costumes and even witnessed friends of friends choosing to wear them, and been told ‘it’s only a joke’, or ‘a bit of fun’.

It seems no matter how many times people speak up about this each year, somebody sells or chooses to dress up in what I can only describe as a thoughtless and completely unacceptable outfit.

"People who buy, make or wear these costumes have a choice – those of us experiencing a mental illness don’t."

It is almost as though these choices have been added to the classic list of typical Halloween costumes. And I use the word choices deliberately, because people who buy, make or wear these costumes have a choice – those of us experiencing a mental illness don’t.

When I first went into hospital I didn’t worry about the stigma around it. Why would I? I was ill and needed help to become well again.

It wasn’t until, whilst filling in a job application, I was asked ‘have you ever spent time in a mental health hospital?’ Immediately my thoughts went to the images portrayed by these costumes – another reason to hesitate about whether or not to be honest, and to worry that my prospective employer will see me as somebody to be feared.

"Halloween should be a fun time of year - it shouldn’t be an excuse to go back to a time where stigma and discrimination were the norm."

The stigma around mental health is bad enough without costumes like these fuelling it. Just as I think we as a country are moving forward away from stigma and discrimination, I am reminded that it is still here and still something that needs to be addressed.

Halloween should be a fun time of year - it shouldn’t be an excuse to go back to a time where stigma and discrimination were the norm.

I ask you as one of the many who have had to answer that question on a job application, who have to deal with stigma and discrimination, and who know how serious and life threatening mental illnesses can be - please think about your Halloween costume this year. There is a never-ending list of possible costumes that don’t discriminate or try to portray serious, life-threating illnesses as sexy and fun.


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