So where’s the harm in a psychotic nympho?

23 October 2017

The image is striking. She’s a modern-day Morticia Addams, raven hair streaked with grey and wearing a revealing white cut out dress complete with ripped stockings. But a second glance reveals some unusual accessories – multiple straps and buckles and extended sleeves tied behind her back. The dress is a straitjacket and the “Psychotic Nympho” has been one of this year’s offerings from a well-known fancy dress company for a fun and quirky Halloween costume.

I have to admit that, despite having been a psychiatrist for over twenty years, these distasteful costumes passed me by until late September 2013. My youngest child, then five years old, was looking for a Halloween costume on a leading supermarket website when up popped the now infamous “mental patient costume”; a ghoulish figure with wild hair and rotten teeth, wearing a bloodstained shirt and wielding a meat cleaver.

I rang the supermarket to complain. Dissatisfied with their lukewarm response, I asked the mental health Trust I work for to pursue the matter. They immediately agreed. Little did I know that this was going to create a Twitterstorm with a deluge of further complaints. Driving home that evening, I was pleasantly surprised to hear about the furore I had unwittingly ignited featuring on the national news!

The outcome on that occasion was very positive. Two major supermarkets quickly withdrew their “patient” costumes and both made very sizeable donations to MIND. Sadly however, every year since then, similar costumes have re-appeared with new companies looking to cash in. And it’s not just costumes. There have been theme park asylum attractions and more recently asylum escape room games. The responses to these have been wide ranging and have included impressive petitions with thousands of signatories, the involvement of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the major mental health charities and even the enlistment of the police under anti-discrimination legislation. Such campaigns are usually successful, but disappointingly only transiently so.

The use of mental illness in entertainment as a horror trope is nothing new. Many of us grew up being thrilled by films portraying psychologically disturbed killers. The winning formula often involved the protagonist suffering presumed mental illness which sometimes necessitated incarceration in a suitably macabre gothic asylum hidden safely away from civilised society. So, aren’t these costumes and attractions just an extension of this hackneyed theme and just a bit of harmless fun? Many would say so, including some of those who have themselves suffered mental illness.

My young son’s reaction to the “mental patient” costume persuades me otherwise. He asked me, if the man was supposed to be a patient, why did he have blood all over him and why he was carrying a big knife. These innocent questions from the lips of a child capture the crux of the issue. Because, however patently ludicrous the outfits are, the malevolent seed that they plant in our subconscious is that those with mental illness are different to “the rest of us”, scary and sometimes dangerous. They serve as a visual metaphor for the wider myths that surround mental illness.

Whatever my personal reaction, it is not my place as a psychiatrist to make assumptions about how this issue makes those with mental illness feel and it would be even less appropriate for me to express my “moral outrage” on their behalf. I have however discussed this with many patients whom I support. Their reactions are admittedly mixed. Some are ambivalent and wonder what all the fuss is about. Others are angry. But by far the most poignant reaction is one of shame. One definition of the word stigma is “a mark of disgrace” and for some this captures the feeling perfectly. And it is this shame and fear of disgrace which prevents them and others from seeking the help that they so desperately need.

Much is being said currently about the importance of raising awareness of mental health. It is welcome that this is now on the political agenda and enjoying high profile support but it is yet to meaningfully permeate our culture. Sometimes therefore it is necessary to help those who exploit this genre to understand the unintended consequences of their actions.

And to do this we undoubtedly need to work together. In June 2017 an escape game room in Leeds called “The Asylum” became the focus of attention on social media. It featured the backdrop of an abandoned asylum with gruesome references to torture, straitjackets and Lecter-style “mouth traps”. The company initially appeared dismissive of the criticism they received but what ultimately persuaded them to withdraw the game were the arguments made to them by a group including the chief executives from Leeds’s mental health Trust and Leeds City Council. As long as these products continue to affect the patients  I see, I will continue to oppose them but what this episode clearly illustrates is the power that those who lead local services hold in their hands. My plea to them is to follow the example set here in Leeds in their support of those who are affected by this kind of discrimination.

 

 

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