Halloween: The Most Offensive Time of the Year, Part Three

There's something about dressing as a fantasy version of a person with a serious mental health condition that seems to get people extremely excited every October, and I can't quite figure out why.
Publish date:
October 12, 2011
ableism, mental illness, I am a crochety curmudgeon, halloween, costumes

Oh gosh, Halloween, are you here already? I was having trouble seeing through the pink haze that had fallen over the world. If it's Halloween, that means it must be time, as Lesley has kindly reminded us, for horrifically offensive costumes. Because nothing says 'I really couldn't think of anything creative to do for Halloween this year' quite like a hastily grabbed1 tacky off-the-rack offering.

Last year, Amanda Hess highlighted the use of straightjackets in 'sexy Halloween costumes' and I sourly note that this particular costume trend still seems to be in full force this year, as it has been for a number of years. There's something about dressing as a fantasy version of a person with a serious mental health condition that seems to get people extremely excited every October, and I can't quite figure out why.

As someone who is going through what I euphemistically refer to as 'Some Mental Health Stuffs' right now2, this is an issue I'm particularly sensitive to at the moment. I'm deluged in constant messaging about mental illness, so much so that I actually just finished cowriting a series for Bitch Magazine all about this subject, because the depiction of mental illness in pop culture is often sadly lacking in reality, let alone sensitivity. Most Halloween costumes built around this theme tend to reiterate common beliefs about mental illness and what it's like to live with a mental health condition; you know, that mental illness is dangerous and scary but also strangely seductive.

The 'mental patient' Halloween costume seems to consist either of things like this...

Meet "Ella Mental." She's available in plus sizes, too.

"Even when over medicated, this patient is tons of fun," the description informs me. Now, here's the part where I get all dour and fun-ruiny, kids, so buckle down your hats and get our your umbrellas 'cause it's gonna rain in here.

"Chemical straightjackets," as they are known, are an extremely common way of controlling people with severe mental illness in hospital environments. In addition to making you feel like a zombie who's been run through a trash compactor, they also tend to make you extremely vulnerable to sexual assault, because fighting back, let alone reporting, is difficult when your head is filled with cotton wool. Oh, and did I mention that a number of studies indicate that patients have been put on Serious Business antipsychotics and tranquilizers without any medical indication, like, say, a diagnosis?

Women with mental illness, like other women with disabilities, are already much more likely to experience rape than the general population, and those odds go up for hospitalized and institutionalized women. One physician raped almost 70 women in a 20-year period. Thus, there is something deeply chilling about the thought of a "sexy" Halloween costume that revolves around a straightjacket. Also, fun fact: Women with mental illness are less likely to be believed when filing reports of sexual assault.

I don't know about you, but these facts don't exactly make me go ga-ga over a costume description suggesting that heavily medicated women are sexually available. Let alone the costume itself.

And here's the lovely Anita Sedative.

"No amount of medication can keep her from going crazy over you."

Oh gosh, folks, can we talk about how one of the most common stereotypes about mentally ill women is that they are all insatiable when it comes to the sexing? Doing it anywhere, anytime, with anyone? And how after they have sex with you they get all creepily attached and then boil your pet bunny?

And there's no way reinforcing that particular attitude has any possible implications for women with mental illnesses. Like, for example, creating such a stigma around disclosure that women may consider themselves "undateable" because of how they've been treated in the past.

Other representations of mental illness tend to look like this...

Because, you know, another extremely common stereotype about mental illness is that people with mental illness, particularly men, are dangerous and scary. That mental illness leads to violence; these stereotypes are reiterated in the media constantly, which feels super awesome when it's your diagnosis people are talking about, let me tell you.

In fact, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. Exactly how much more likely depends on which statistics you use -- I've seen numbers between three and 11 times more likely than the general population, depending on the types of mental health conditions included in studies, and how the study designers defined violent crimes. Yet, the belief that we are violent (deranged, psycho, lunatics) is so entrenched that every time a heinous crime makes the news, people assume a mentally ill person did it.

The biggest factors in violent crime committed by people with mental illness are drug use, and lack of access to early intervention and treatment. The largest provider of mental health services in the United States is the prison system, evidence not that mental illness leads to violence, but that society in general criminalizes mental illness. Especially for children and teens with severe mental illness, treatment options can be so limited that parents are sometimes encouraged to call the police for help because they cannot access care in any other way. And of course that never ends badly.

I don't have to dress up as a crazy person for Halloween, because I already am one. I definitely wouldn't object if this fad went the way of the dodo. How about you?

1. Right? Please tell me people don't actually plan ahead with some of these and get actively excited about going as, say, this.

2. AKA the bats in my belfrey are getting restless, and they did not take carillon lessons before ringing the bells.

3. Hard stats are extremely difficult to get here because there are a lot of ways to define "disability," data is collected in many different ways, etc. Some stats put the number at about double; for women with developmental disabilities, it can be much higher.