Do Halloween Psychos Marginalize Mental Illness?
> 10/30/2006 1:16:04 PM

Our society fosters some unquestionably negative stereotypes regarding the mentally ill. But do the slasher films and "psycho" Halloween costumes that have entertained kids for years actually discourage public sympathy for those suffering from mental illness?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness issued an alert early this month arguing that Fright Night depictions of mental institutions as horrific insane asylums and their wards as murdererous monsters impede the progress of real life patients and their loved ones who struggle every day to overcome the many handicaps associated with their illness. Though very specific in this case, theirs is hardly a fringe position. The Department of Health and Human Services, together with The Advertising Council, will begin an anti-stigma publicity campaign in November 2006, the goal of which is to help young adults appreciate the seriousness of mental health issues. Their most distressing statistics suggest that just over half of American adults believe that those suffering from a mental illness can return to "normalcy" with treatment. The 1999 Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health states that:

Thanks to research and the experiences of millions of individuals who have a mental disorder, their family members, and other advocates, the Nation has the power today to tear down the most formidable obstacle to future progress in the arena of mental illness and health. That obstacle is stigma. Stigmatization of mental illness is an excuse for inaction and discrimination that is inexcusably outmoded...

The fact that some view those defined as "mentally ill" with dismissive condescension is indeed a problem. Affected individuals who see continously negative depictions of various disorders throughout the news and entertainment worlds will usually be less enthusiastic about seeking help and thereby placing themselves into this misunderstood category. Most of the Halloween celebrations mentioned by NAMI surely reflect a lack of sensitivity rather than an attempt to marginalize those under treatment for related disorders, but NAMI argues that this does not make them acceptable. One particularly extreme example involves a hospital in Provo, Utah which used actual patients as performers in a seasonal show before it was shut down due to protesting a decade ago.

Opponents who accuse advocacy groups of excessive political correctness may want to consider the number of Americans affected by mental illness. Far from the knife-wielding psychopaths of lore, many who suffer can live successful professional and social lives, and their health problems may be invisible to the public. Mental illness does not signify weakness of character. The National Mental Health Association estimates that, while 54 million Americans suffer from some form of disorder, less than one in six actually undergo treatment. Creating a national (and hopefully worldwide) environment that is more receptive to the victims of mental illness will almost certainly encourage a growing number to seek professional help for a very real problem. If the discontinuation of certain outdated Halloween traditions will benefit that cause, there is no viable reason for them to continue.

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