Halloween and Mental Health Stigmas

Orange-and-black Halloween decorations and spooky costumes fill storefronts long before the last day of October. This scary holiday is anticipated by many: children are eager to trick-or-treat, and adults look forward to attending themed Halloween parties with their perfect costume planned weeks in advance. But, for some, Halloween is a confusing and stigma-filled holiday. Many Halloween attractions depict mental illness as a frightening and horrific thing. For example, many haunted houses or haunted forests portray people in straightjackets or trying to escape from an asylum. This negative image of mental health issues is damaging to our society’s view and knowledge of mental health. Thankfully, advocates are putting a stop to these negative portrayals of mental illness by bringing attention to several amusement and entertainment companies who continue to stigmatize mental health.

What types of Halloween attractions contribute to the stigma of mental illness?

Many Halloween attractions and decorations depict people with mental illnesses as terrifying or dangerous. Most haunted houses feature an asylum-like room with a patient dressed in a straightjacket or other facility outfit trying to escape or scare visitors. Other examples include female skeleton costumes coined as “Anna Rexia”, bloody nurse costumes, or white gowns with “State Mental Patient” boldly written on the front. Unfortunately, there are even Halloween decorations that represent hanging cloth bodies from trees. As evidenced by the wide array of Halloween decorations and costumes, many mental health issues are included and stigmatized, including severe mental illness, eating disorders, suicide, or inpatient treatment centers. These costumes and depictions negatively contribute to society’s image of mental health and illness.

Mental health is a subject that needs to be taken seriously. The stigmatized view of mental illness as scary and dangerous only makes it more difficult for people who are struggling with mental health issues to reach out and seek help. If you begin to notice Halloween decorations or costumes that add to mental health stigmas, you are welcome to gently remind the storeowners or companies that the décor or costume is inappropriate and contributes to the stigmatization of mental health. Thankfully, there are advocates who are already standing up to entertainment and amusement companies who continually utilize images or attractions that criticize people with mental illness.

 What are advocates doing about this?

Advocates are reaching out to companies that perpetuate these negative stereotypes of mental health issues. Many Halloween stores and large entertainment companies have discontinued selling products that represent the mentally ill as dangerous, scary, or something to be taken lightheartedly. Two years ago, advocates were able to successfully terminate Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween attraction “Fear VR.” This interactive exhibit was previously called “Fear VR 5150” which stands for the clinical term used when an individual must be hospitalized due to being harmful to themselves or another person. The attraction’s name was changed when advocates took to social media and the news to bring awareness to the disconcerting nature of the attraction and its negative focus on mental illness. Eventually, the entire attraction was brought to a close by the amusement park due to it being hurtful to those with mental illness.

As exhibited by the closing of one stigmatizing attraction, advocates are fully able to make positive change in the community by using their voice to stand up against destructive representations of mental illness.

 How can you help put an end to the Halloween stigma of mental illness?

Knott’s Berry Farm’s entire attraction was renamed and closed due to advocates spreading the news about its negative impact on mental health. Every voice can play a role in helping make it easier to talk about mental health issues and to seek professional help when necessary. If you see a disconcerting costume, decoration, or amusement attraction that portrays mental illness as dangerous, funny, or frightening, you have the option of doing a few things to raise awareness. First, you may consider gently bringing this up with the company itself and explaining how its depiction is harmful to mental illness. It can be a learning opportunity for the company if they are unaware of its portrayal of a serious topic. You may also contemplate raising awareness by bringing it to a news source or social media. This can help garner outside support for others who were unaware of the issue. Lastly, it is always important to remain open and flexible. Changes may not be made immediately, and companies will likely take time to create lasting change. Every voice can make a difference and contribute positively to ending the stigma of mental illness.

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