Mental Illness Is Not A Costume

One morning last week, like any other morning, I was checking email on my daily work commute. Except that morning I discovered an email in my inbox that read “Offensive Costume Alert.” At first I thought it was spam but decided to open it anyway. I was confronted with an image that put a pit in my stomach – a white jumpsuit splattered with blood and read “Dorothea Dix Psych Ward.” I had to do a double take, I couldn’t believe it. As I read the email I learned this was a costume being sold at a local Halloween pop up store. As my shock continued, I began to realize how intentional this company had to have been to research a local psychiatric hospital and then mass produce these costumes to be sold in the region associated with the hospital.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 11.07.14 PM

The people on the email chain started a grassroots campaign to call the management of the company and demand they stop selling the costume. They were met with apathy and continued stigma. Eventually, with enough people calling and threats to protest, the company agreed to take the costumes off the sales floor.

Although I am relieved the local store is no longer selling the item, I can’t help but think where else is this being sold? Who will be impacted? What other popular costumes ideas will further oppress people? Of course Halloween is a fun time to dress up in character, but more often than not stereotypes come out in full force. People dressing in sombreros and panchos, or representing muslims as terrorists, displaying rape culture, or dressing as a thug –  this list could go on and on. This holiday does not magically give us permission to appropriate cultures, promote discrimination, or infer people who have a mental illness are violent.

As a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a person who lives with general anxiety disorder, a friend and family member to countless people living with mental illness, and a visitor to people in a psychiatric inpatient unit; I am moved to speak about the stigma and discrimination faced by those living with mental illness.

According to NAMI statistics, 1 in 5 adults in America experience a mental illness.       

So that means when you are standing in line at Starbucks, at the mall, or in a crowded restaurant you are surrounded by people living with a mental illness. Mental health affects everyone regardless of culture, race, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation. We have to stop shrugging off the humorous intentions of stereotypes and recognize the actual impact of our words and actions, because mental illness is not a joke or a costume. It is a reality for millions of people around the world.

After hearing of this incident I decided to take action. I wanted to give voice to the people who remain silent in fear of losing their job, for the people who are afraid to tell their family, who are timid about seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, and for the people who society has alienated with the stigma and discrimination of mental illness. These people are your educators, your baristas, your friends, your bus drivers, and the person you least suspect. People all around you are struggling and recovering from mental illness and their life is not a costume. It is filled with love and laughter, struggle and hurt, success and failure – just like yours. We must stop the silence that comes with the stigma of mental illness. So get educated and ask the questions, because more than likely you or a loved one will be faced with a diagnosis one day. And when that time comes you can either be ignorant or you can greet that person with compassion – to let them know they are not alone. 

Depicted below are photographs I took of people that agreed to show their support of this movement and I am so grateful for their willingness to participate. They agreed to impact stigma by acknowledging the people they know are not an image of a costume – how will you?

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.22.59 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.18.09 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.16.56 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.11.45 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.10.15 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.03.40 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.19.19 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.05.34 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 6.49.49 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.20.29 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.21.41 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 6.52.08 PM

Lets start a movement! Use the hashtag #NotACostume to start a conversation about mental illness or other cultures and stereotypes that are misrepresented!


30 thoughts on “Mental Illness Is Not A Costume

  1. So happy to see conversations happening about mental illness. If we could all be so understanding who knows what we accomplish. Sometimes living with stigma is more difficult then living with the mental illness itself. Thanks for posting and thanks for reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bravo! I’m so happy there are people like yourself speaking up and out about mental illness…how is it in 2015 people are still so ignorant and even hostile towards the subject….if someone has cancer, diabetes, the list goes on…they receive support at all levels…it’s as if mental illness is still not considered a legitimate illness…To me the ones who are truly mentally ill are the ones who refuse to acknowledge that it’s real and it exists…you hear stories of people ready to jump to their death…and people down below egging them on to jump…how sick is that???…and now some costume store decided the best way to gain publicity and send customers their way was to exploit the mentally ill…knowing full well it would offend….they knew exactly what they were doing yet they are considered to be mentally healthy and those who protest are just too sensitive…because it’s just a joke right?…wow

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have always thought that Halloween costumes can be taken too far and promote stereotypes and discrimination. They are not funny. I agree with this movement not only for those dealing with mental illness but also all those who are made fun of in the form of a over dramatized campy costume created based on biased stereotyping to make fun of someone’s race, heritage, religion, orientation, or background.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have hyper awareness anxiety, For years I had no clue what was wrong, just that I was different. It got to the point where I began to suffer sleep insomnia and started to get depressed. My family even started to avoid me because I was just to much at all times.

    I was scared to go to the doctor. I didn’t want to be seen as broken or different. Finally I went (Actully it was only 2 months ago after 28 years of suffering) and was put on medication to help. And for the first time in forever I feel like a weight has been lifted. I no longer feel like I am behind or like something bad is going to happen.
    For this costume shop to make a costume that pokes fun at mental illness is sick! I was one of those people who was afraid to get help. I suffered for years, because I didn’t want to put into words what I thought would make me sound different. They aren’t funny, they aren’t cute and I am happy so many people took a stand!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kate, thanks for addressing this matter. You are absolutely right, you never know who we encounter that may dealing with mental health issues. It’s sad that there are companies that are looking to make money off other people’s problems. Thanks for starting this movement.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on This Time for Zambia and commented:
    I am NOT my mental illness, and my mental illness is NOT your costume. Thank you to my amazing mentor/role model/big sister/and everything in between, Kate Kryder, for writing such an important post just in time for Mental Health Awareness Week from October 11-17th. Learn more about the work she does and her campaign here: #StigmaFree #NotaCostume #MentalHealthAwareness

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d love to get some help with this:

    The organizers are on Facebook here:

    Not only is mental illness not a costume, but a mental hospital is not a “haunted house”, and it is decidedly unhelpful to mock mental health in this way.

    These are good people, working for a worthy cause that truly deserves the support of our community. But they have made some terrible choices about their Halloween fundraiser.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi-My name is Gayle and I came across your photos during an image search. I found your link while trying to search for a source for these profoundly impactful photographs. Are you comfortable with me sharing them on this blog post? I’ve been advocating to remove a children’s mental patient costume, as well as many adult mental patient costumes, with the help of Mental Health America:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s