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Halloween and Mental Illness Stigma

How to stop the myths that mental illness is scary.

Source: Pixabay

Halloween is one of the oldest recorded observances. The tradition started over 2,000 years ago with the Celts, who believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred on October 31st.

On that "Hallow's Eve"—otherwise called the Festival of Samhain—the Celts built bonfires and wore ghostly costumes to drive the evil spirits away. Some carried lanterns crafted out of potatoes or turnips to intimidate the demons they believed were around them.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reminds us that not only is it the season for ghosts and goblins, but also stigma. Costumes and seasonal attractions that feature psychos, mental patients, and insane asylums perpetuate stereotypes that mental illness is scary, frightening, and horrific. Intended as fun, these violent stereotypes serve to perpetuate stigma—which was long ago reported by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher as an enormous source of prejudice and discrimination for children and adults who live with mental illness.

4 Tips for Stigma-Busting Halloween

1. Think about your costume. When choosing an outfit, consider carefully if the costume you or your child is wearing will foster misconceptions about people with mental illness or demonize people who struggle with such disorders.

2. Avoid attractions that perpetuate stigma. Resist paying admission or visiting local attractions that feature mental patients, psychos, freaks, weirdos, and/or urban legends. If you're feeling outraged, consider contacting your local government officials to share your feelings about this stigmatizing form of entertainment.

3. Decorate appropriately. Halloween decor indoors or outdoors should reflect appropriate harvest or scary themes. Ghosts, witches, goblins, zombies, and the like are all stigma-free—as are pumpkins, cornstalks, and spiderwebs.

4. Decide if the time is right to fight the fight. Halloween is a season of fun for children of all ages. Seeing a stigmatizing costume or witnessing a degrading entertainment event may hurt—but don't feel as if you have to reach and teach everyone you meet. It's OK to let others fight against mental health discrimination.

More from Deborah Serani Psy.D.
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