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