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Why crass ‘mental patient’ costumes offend me as a patient and professional

'Mental patient' costume had been sold by Asda (L) and 'Psycho Ward' costume by Tesco (R)

‘Mental patient’ costume had been sold by Asda (L) and ‘Psycho Ward’ costume by Tesco (R)

By selling ‘mental patient’ costumes peddling damaging myths about mental health, 21st century corporations displayed attitudes that belong in the dark ages, writes Amanda Headley-White

MH2As a mental health service user and a professional I am shocked that in 2013 so-called reputable firms, including Asda, Amazon and Tesco, could blatantly perpetuate the stigma around mental health by selling crass ‘mental patient’ Halloween costumes.

I have used services on and off since I was 17, having been hospitalised several times. Like the vast majority of those with a mental health condition I was never a risk to anyone else, but rather to myself.

The patients on the wards were some of the most deeply caring and empathic people I have met, who would do anything to help someone else, whilst really struggling to care for themselves.

Most people on a psychiatric ward look just the same as anyone else, dressed in everyday clothes. In fact if staff didn’t wear their NHS badges, I doubt you would know the difference.

No one wears orange boiler suits, which look more like something from Guantanamo Bay. Certainly, contrary to the one of the costumes advertised online, no one carries a blood-stained cleaver. This stereotype is medieval, and belongs in the history books.

The costumes advertised by Asda, Tesco and Amazon are highly offensive to anyone living with a mental health condition. Asda – which has since withdrawn the costume after a barrage of criticism (this afternoon Tesco has also withdrawn the costumes from sale) – said: “We would never want to offend even one person.” If that’s the case then I can only assume that Asda do not see people with mental health conditions as people.

The frustrating thing is, it feels like these firms have undone some of the great work done to tackle mental health stigma by the BBC, who recently ran a series of documentaries on mental health, as well as campaigns by numerous mental health charities.

I am one of the lucky ones, I work in a job I love, which is all about enabling those with mental health conditions to move forward in life. In my years as a community worker I met many, many mental health service users who were afraid to leave their own houses due to the victimisation they faced by members of the local community.

Coming from the dual perspective of service user and mental health professional I believe that those with mental health conditions (and let’s remember that that is 1 in 4 of us at some point), need understanding, compassion and the chance to live with dignity and respect.

Many of the service users I train to work as peer workers (a peer worker uses their experience of mental health problems to help others) believed that their life was over when they became ill, most feared that they would never be employable, and would be too scared to disclose their experiences.

I work for a Mindful Employer, the Bristol-based mental health charity Second Step, and we work incredibly hard to support staff who are struggling with their mental health, to enable them to lead fulfilled and worthwhile lives.

I dread to think how firms selling these constumes might respond to an employee or customer who has a mental health condition. I will be withdrawing my custom from these companies.

Amanda Headley-White, mental health professional, and service user.

About Andy McNicoll

Andy is community editor at Community Care, with a focus on reporting on mental health. He has previously worked for titles focusing on the NHS and substance misuse sectors. You can contact him at andy.mcnicoll@rbi.co.uk

2 Responses to Why crass ‘mental patient’ costumes offend me as a patient and professional

  1. jeanne Ellin 26 September , 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    very well put sensitive and intelligent response to a crass insensitive and ignorant “commercial action” lets respond by avoiding these outlets but also think of how little support any of their staff who are or have been users of mental health services will get from such employers.

    • Amanda Headley-White 27 September , 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      Thanks Jeanne!