Fancy dress distractions - challenging mental health stereotypes

26 Sep 2013
by Graeme Green

The way society treats people with mental health problems has come a very long way in a relatively short space of time. We no longer fill asylums with people whose needs would be far better met in the community, nor do we invite paying spectators to be entertained by people living with serious mental illness.

We no longer do these things because, as a society, our understanding of mental illness – of the debilitating impact it has on individuals and their families – has improved to a point where we help the vast majority of the people affected to live independently and with dignity in the community.

I’m surprised and saddened, then, that anyone would think it acceptable to produce, sell and (presumably) wear a “blood-soaked” costume purporting to represent a mental health patient, as supermarket ASDA has been doing. For those of you who missed the story the business has been selling the following “Mental Patient” fancy dress costume in the run-up to Halloween.

I have been a qualified psychiatric nurse for the last 30 years, and am currently the Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services here at Framework. As a result I have worked with many hundreds of people with real mental health conditions – conditions that vary dramatically and manifest themselves in different ways. However, not once have I come across a man, covered in blood and with only half a face, wielding meat clever, and there is a very good reason for this; because this kind of mis-informed stereotype of people with mental health issues is so profoundly inaccurate and misleading.

Sure enough, a minority of people with mental health difficulties can be violent is they are not given the support they need, but there is so much more to the subject than this.

More than 20 per cent of the people who use Framework’s services do so because of a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health condition. We also operate supported accommodation units designed specifically to support people with mental health problems. The people we help all have different problems – from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia. Some live happily and independently in the community. Others may never be able to do so.  In short they are all different. What I hear time and again, however, is a common frustration about how they are stigmatised by people who know nothing of the problems they face or the anguish they have suffered as a result of conditions they can do nothing to change.

I am pleased that ASDA (and Tesco, which was selling a similar but slightly less graphic costume) have acted so swiftly to remove these items from their shelves. In a way I am also pleased of the debate this story has served to generate. People talking and discussing mental health issues can only be a good thing as it is likely to lead to increased understanding and awareness. On this theme it seems a good point to mention an opportunity for people to increase their understanding of mental health.

Mental Health Awareness Weeks, held annually in Nottingham, features a programme of events designed to inform, educate and inspire. Included in this programme is a series of thought-provoking and challenging films at The Broadway, sponsored by Framework. A short introduction will be given to each film.

In the meantime you can learn more about our work with people with mental health difficulties by clicking here.

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