Halloween is fast approaching, and children everywhere are planning their costumes. It’s part of the fall tradition.
Once schools settle into a routine, and the obligatory considerations for Thanksgiving have been put in place, it’s all about dress-up and the candy haul.
These days, more adults are getting caught up in the dress-up excitement, as various bars and pubs plan their misnamed Mardi Gras events.
I have seen some clever costumes over the years. My favourite has been the one created by two different women who dressed up as ovens because, you guessed it, they were pregnant and had “buns in the oven.”
Not long ago, at the urging of the resident teen, I took a run through the new Halloween store in town. I was not surprised to see the usual takes on fancy tarts, super heroes, zombies and vampires, but more than a little disappointed to see costumes for Native Americans and Spanish señoritas.
What really threw me for a loop was the display at the back of the store. It depicted a mental asylum, complete with various patients engaging in a series of grotesque and horrifying acts.
In fact, the whole display makes a mockery of the dreadful conditions people with mental illnesses were forced to endure for many years before change in treatment and approach was implemented.
Back about eight years ago, the Halloween Haunted House fundraiser featured a scene set in an asylum, and mental health advocates challenged its depiction of mental illness, both as entertainment and for its contribution to stigma. The mental health community worked with the Haunted House sponsors and the scene was removed.
However, it seems that memories are short and reminders of how negative, misleading and disrespectful representations of the disenfranchised hurt individuals are once again necessary.
Much has already been written by anti-racism theorists and educators about the misuse of national dress as a costume for Halloween, or even everyday wear. This summer, for example, we saw the trendy clothing store H+M, as a result of public pressure, be forced to withdraw from sale around the world their take on aboriginal headdresses.
Quite rightly, aboriginal people had protested this appropriation. But we know things can be different. The resulting media coverage revealed how other retailers have now contracted with aboriginal artisans and crafters to profile and to create original and appropriate works of fashion and craft for sale to the world at large.
While travelling recently, I came across an article in the British press highlighting actions by British retailers Asda and Tesco to remediate their reputation after offering for sale adult-sized “psycho ward” patient and “mentally ill” costumes.
Quite a number of prominent British leaders, sports stars and other celebrities expressed their outrage, noting such costumes contribute to stigma, shame and misunderstanding.
The costumes have been withdrawn from sale, and both retailers have agreed to make significant donations to a mental health charity.
Perhaps we might see something similar happen in our own community. It would help go a long way to challenging people’s views of mental illness and mental health.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and
consultant working in St. John’s. From 1998 to 2006, she was a member of the board of directors for the Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland and Labrador Division. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.