Saturday, October 1, 2011

Help Stamp Out Stigma This Halloween

It's that time of year again...It's the season for ghosts and goblins, and unfortunately stigma for those living with a mental illness. Every year, some local haunted house attractions take the form of "insane asylums," featuring "mental patients" as murderers or ghouls. Halloween costumes, displays, or other products may reflect similar themes with straightjackets and statues.While it is often claimed such costumes and fun houses are only in humor and fun, not ment to depict mentally ill individuals, such depictions are based off of a sordid history of early mental health treatment, depicting actual hospitals and conditions the mentally ill endured during that time period. Also, when such stereotypes are used, where mentally ill individuals are only portrayed only as antagonists or villains, portrayed as violent, or when offensive or insensitive symbols (e.g., straitjackets), these perpetuate stigma and stereotypes which can be quite hurtful and damaging to those living with a mental illness today:

•Straitjackets represent extremely painful, traumatic experiences. Their image is hurtful to individuals and families who struggle with mental illness.

•Using straitjackets for entertainment demeans individual dignity and trivializes mental illness.

•Straitjackets are often associated with violence.

•Violent stereotypes are inaccurate and offensive. Most people who suffer from a mental disorder are not violent there is no need to fear them. Embrace them for who they are normal human beings experiencing a difficult time, who need your open mind, caring attitude, and helpful support.”(Grohol, 1998) Grohol, J. M. “Dispelling the violence myth.” Psych Central. (June, 1998).

•Lunatic" is an obsolete, stigmatizing, offensive term—just like racial and ethnic slurs that once were used in the past. "Pyscho" also is insulting and further perpetuates stigma, along with themes like "Halloween of Horrors."

These images reinforce shame and create the kind of stigma that the U.S. Surgeon General has found to be a major barrier to people seeking help when they need it. Remember, offensive portrayals of heart or cancer patients would never be tolerated. The issue isn't "political correctness." It's about human dignity and a public health crisis. Usually, no one intends to offend, but they need to understand that the effect is not only offensive, but also generates stigma. Here's what you can do if you encounter such displays and costumes:

•Complain directly to a store manager of an offending item and ask that a store product be removed from shelves. For chain stores, ask to contact the regional manager.

•Complain to the owner or sponsor of a Halloween attraction especially if it involves a service club and ask for the attraction theme to be changed. The sponsors may apologize but be unwilling or unable to change the attractions this year. If so, ask instead for a public statement or written promise to use a different theme in the future. Also, if the sponsor is a club, ask to make a presentation on mental illness at one of their meetings.

•If dialogue fails, have NAMI members, family and friends phone, send letters, or e-mail the sponsor—as well as to any newspaper or radio station running a promotion. Letters from allies such as hospital directors or medical societies may especially have an impact.

•Contact local newspaper editors and television news directors. Use the controversy as a "teaching moment" about mental illness and the need to eliminate stigma.

Together, you can help stamp out stigma this Halloween.

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