It’s 2017 and people are still wearing mental illnesses like they are costumes.
They 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.
It’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.
Closer 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.
Lest 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.
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?