Mental Illness Isn’t a Costume

It’s 2017 and people are still wearing mental illnesses like they are costumes.

471343e068ea5943234e99cc864153a8--straight-jacket-insane-asylumThey are buying costumes called “Escaped Mental Patient,” and a “Sexy Psycho.” They are even buying their children “Straight Jacket Costumes” patterned after Victorian-era straight jackets, splattered with fake blood, wrapped with brown leather restraints printed with “WARD 1031” on it.

The costume description reads: “Go crazy, literally, show everyone what a psycho you really are!” There are even bright orange jumpsuits similar to the ones I wore when I was in detox  and a hospital that I wrote about in a previous post.


22467563_1469877706430502_5010312256434731278_o.jpgIt’s 2017 and a search for “escaped asylum patient costume” yields 946,000 hits including tutorials for “how to look crazy and DIY straightjackets on You Tube. There are inspiration boards on Pinterest with tips for making your home look like an asylum.

It’s 2017 and former asylums/ mental hospitals are transformed into haunted houses or theme parks have haunted house themes like “Asylum Island,” “Massacre Medical Center,” “House of Psychos.”


Visitors are led past actors getting shock therapy, lobotomies, trying to escape straight jackets. People’s pain and suffering is treated like entertainment, patients as circus freak sideshow attractions.

hqdefault-1Closer to home, a Minneapolis suburb called Anoka has been dubbed the most haunted place in Minnesota because it once housed one of the MN State Hospitals.  Last fall, City Pages wrote an article called: “Why Visiting Anoka State Hospital, Minnesota’s Most Haunted Spot is a Bad Idea,” that played up the stereotype that the most tortured, insane patients once stayed here and continue to haunt the area.

There was a haunted tour in the former MN hospital in Fergus Falls (where I did my writer’s residency) that featured nurses doing experimental testing on patients at the cottage, “encountering roaming insane patients” who wielded bloody cleaving knives, axes, and chainsaws.

It would be easier to write these things off as harmless fun, to justify, to rationalize. After all, straightjackets and asylums are a relic of the past, right?

No. These things perpetuate harmful myths about mental illness. We will get to that.

1397883_523267254424890_1440772096_o.jpgLest you think I’m a fun-killer or have any doubts, I L-O-V-E Halloween. I prided myself in winning elementary school costume contests, my favorite being Harriet the Spy. Carrying this tradition into adulthood, I made DIY costumes like being half Mad-Hatter, half Alice-in-Wonderland and a sexy robot. Helping my friends decorate for their Halloween parties is another must. I’ve done my share of weird creepy things like decapitated and dismembered dolls then stuffed their heads and limbs into jars with food coloring.

This is about more than people’s feelings. This is about people’s health. While I think comparing mental illness to a disease like diabetes or cancer can be simplistic and reductive, the fact is that mental illness is every bit as real, deadly, and insidious as other diseases. Would Amazon ever sell a costume for heart disease, cancer, diabetes? If they did people would be outraged. They wouldn’t want the source of pain to be made a mockery. The root of the difference here is that unlike these diseases, mental illnesses are still stigmatized. Stigma can create a culture of silence and fear where people are afraid to ask for help, take medications or openly talk about their struggles with mental illness for fear of judgment and discrimination.

a419b79101c8ab1d7b4e58040ee5348e--halloween-costume-ideas-halloween-Myth: People with mental illness are to be feared. They are dangerous violent, deranged serial killers who live(d) on the fringes of society.

Fact: People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. One in five people in the US have met criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year (this statistic includes anxiety, which is the most common mental health condition).

Myth: Mental hospitals are like haunted houses. Asylums were torturous places where nurses and doctors tortured patients.

Fact:  Mental hospitals are places where people go for stabilization and support during/ after a mental health crisis. People are hospitalized for many different reasons: suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, detox, overdoses, hearing voices, etc. Certainly they are imperfect places.

Sadly there were atrocities at the asylums and horrific human rights violations and treatments like electroshock therapy, straight jackets/ restraints, hydrotherapy, and forced tranquilization. But there was also immense healing that happened in those places. to write off all of the healing and positive things that happened there, some of which I’ve documented on this blog.

Myth: Anoka is the most haunted place in Minnesota where patients of the state hospital were tortured and killed themselves in “catacombs” that connected buildings.

Fact: While the hospital did do ECT, hydrotherapy, and retrained patients, they also stopped using restraints and straight jackets in 1949, which was a decade earlier than most state hospitals. (more about that next post). One former nurse commented, “ I witnessed excellent care being provided to persons with severe illnesses that no one else would or could provide. Most staff were compassionate and did all in their power to demonstrate this to all. We used the tunnel during inclement weather to move from one building to another.”

Other fact: You know what is truly terrifying? The prison industrial complex. The fact that we are locking up and imprisoning nonviolent people with first-time or petty drug offences instead of providing them with rehabilitation.

Myth: People with mental illnesses are fascinating and entertaining.

Fact:  Our suffering and pain are not vessels for your entertainment. We are not a circus attraction.

We have made progress in shattering these myths by stopping some of these harmful Halloween traditions, especially thanks to advocacy efforts by the National Association of Mental Illness. Cedar Fair removed Asylum Island from its list of attractions at the Kansas City park in 2014.  Writer Pete Earley called attention to a costume makeup kit being sold   that depicted someone cutting a “suicide scar wound.” Was Mart later removed the item from its website.

We can all have fun, dress up in costumes, reslish in horror movies, spook each other out, go to haunted houses. Why does it have to be at the expense of others, who were already wounded and hurting the way it is?



(Un)sustainability Part II

Before we get to Part II of Unsustainability, I suggest that you to this blog’s home page and check out Part I of this series. I promise its worth your time.

Here’s a quick recap: We all know the healing powers of nutrition, fresh air, sunlight. Despite this knowledge, treatment centers continue to serve highly processed foods with high fat content.


A model for the healing power of nutrition and farming, the former Fergus Falls State Hospital (FFSH/ MN Asylum) operated a self-sustaining farm from 1891 to 1969.  But in the 1950s, the treatment philosophy began to shift from moral treatment’s focus on rehabilitation to medication.


Despite the many benefits of the farm, it closed in 1969. According to the Otter Tail Record, closing the farm “evoked only gloomy nostalgia and little opposition from the community,” because of cataclysmic shifts in both treatment philosophy and economic trends in the 1960s. Fewer patients were staying at the hospital full time, in part due to the increasing use of shock therapy and tranquilizer medications.

Hm74AgF7Rnl55ytcKbjT4zSBo1_500        This ad for a tranquilizer captures the power of tranquilizers: “Patients hospitalized for many years…are now at home.”  They made successful recovery and treatment a reality for people who may have otherwise been lifelong patients. People with mental illnesses could lead could live fuller, more independent lives  in the community than in the hospital (although this is a post for another day).

The hospital had around 2000 patients in the 1930s, then dipped down to less than 1000 patients in the 1960s. This was the first time that the hospital had seen a decline in its entire history.   Existing patients were strained with a higher work load so the hospital had to hire people just to help keep up with the farm.


Postcard-1914-Photograph-Collection-MNHS.org_    Another reason the farm closed was because of urbanization, the communal, aggregate lifestyle was becoming a whimsical relic of the past. Farms were no longer a way of life for families, they were now growing to competitive factory operations.

Gone was the “off the vine” mentality. Instead of plucking vegetables from the family’s sunny garden, people picked packaged foods off grocery store shelves under the blinding of fluorescent lights.

People were seeking more than just food and shelter; they wanted opportunities, education, and leisure. Many saw felt that farm work was drudgery and hospital staff agreed farm work  no longer therapy.

But the shift towards urbanization and preference for packaged foods, for convenience and ease also parallels people’s desire for a quick fix for mental health, for taking shortcuts and losing some humanity in the process.



A few years after I graduated from my residential treatment program, I ran into the cook Jamie at a gas station at 4 am. As I looked at the glossy hot dogs spinning in the glass case and the basket of rubbery apples, Jamie joked, “The food we serve here is more real than at that hospital.”

I didn’t remember the counselor’s names, group member’s names, other worker’s names. I remembered Jamie’s name. With a short bleach-blond hair, Jamie barely saw over the counter. She bought all of her clothes in the little boy’s section and dressed her three Chihuahuas in doll clothes and changed their diapers and cooked them gourmet dog food. I had been warned to get on her good side.

Before I left, I went to go say goodbye to Jamie. She was perched atop a tower of frozen foods, using them like a barstool, eating a salad over the counter. “Minnie, you scared the shit out of me,” she said.”I’m not supposed to bring my own lunch but I sure as hell won’t eat their food. I have to eat real food.”

      All of us searching and clinging to what’s real, doing the best we can.


IMG_6285 Fires also led to the demise of the FFSH farms, another suiting metaphors woven right into history.  The horse barn was totally burned to the ground in 1915.  Two patients committed arson in 1968. But the most striking fire to me was in 1936, when Faulty wiring destroyed a large cow barn. The barn was “so badly gutted it is worthless and will have to be torn down.”

Our current food system in mental health facilities and rehabs are faulty and flawed.  We need nutrition groups and registered dieticians to educate patients about eating in recovery. We need to synchronize the food that we serve at these facilities with these recommendations rather than perpetuating toxic food environments. The current farm-to-table movement and increasing accessibility of organic foods gives me hope, that perhaps somewhere a state-run facility is harvesting their own food.

Up next: A special Halloween edition of Off-Her-Rocker about asylums as haunted houses.


Some folks requested that I post my resources, so here we go! I obtained many of these resources from Ottertail County Historical Society archives and sincerely thank the wonderful archivests who helped me begin this process. I arranged the resources here from the ones that I used the most to the least and it’s probably not proper APA but oh well, I will delve into this further as I do my thesis and meh, it’s a blog eh?

Leonard, Benjamin A. “The State Hospital Farm: A Model for the Future, Discontinued in the Past,” Otter Tail Record. 1998.

Borgen, Alvi. “Farm Tasks Provide Patient Therapy,” from The Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1966.

Borgin, Alvi. “Institutional Farm Taking on New Role,” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1966.

Editorial. “Fire Distroys Large Cow Barn on State Hospital Farm.” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1940.

Photo credits: Top 3- MN Historical Society

Pill photo- Artist Unknown, Tumblr.

Last photo of area near former farm at FFSH: By me.