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For those of you not in the UK or not following the news there was a recent controversy over a particular halloween costume depicting a “mental patient” in a ripped up straight jacket, covered in blood, and holding a meat cleaver. I watched the whole thing unfold through twitter (I tend to use twitter to follow news and different advocacy groups I am interested in). I saw people start posting it in shock calling for Asda (the supermarket in question) to recall the costume and to donate money to a mental health charity. In the course of two hours this had happened (the incredible efficiency of social media is a topic for a whole other blog post). Asda has apologized and offered to donate money to the mental health charity Mind. But what followed on twitter was a barrage of people posting “this is what a mental health patient looks like” photos. Photos of themselves, with their families, normal looking people. These people are all putting themselves out there to stop the stigma that somehow still abounds around mental health problems.

What I don’t understand is why there is still so much stigma. Some people come out and talk about mental health problems. Celebrities have been doing it — as have other famous figures — and ordinary people are now starting blogs to talk about their struggles with mental health problems, to open up and share their experiences. But still the stigma is there. Public health people only open up about their experiences after they have well-established careers. People are told not to talk about their issues if they want to get a good job. Only this year in the UK the law that allowed company directors and MPs to be fired for mental health problems, as well as stopping anyone with a history of mental health problems from being on a jury was changed. This is a step forward, but it took far too long. 1 in 4 people (statistics vary slightly depending on the country) will suffer from some form of mental illness at some point in their lives, but still the discrimination is huge.

There are a number of professions which are viewed as “tough” to work in–law and medicine for example–many people with mental health problems are told that they just couldn’t cut it in that world. To be honest, I feel like the people who have experienced the problems and discrimination would be far better in these positions that those who perpetuate it. Would I have a problem having a doctor with a history of depression? No. What about a doctor who was prejudiced against people with mental illness? Well, that would be a different story. By perpetuating these myths we are not only making those with mental illness feel ‘lesser’, we are also stopping people coming forward for help. Students in medical school may not feel able to ask for help with their suicidal feelings for fear of being hospitalized and losing the chance to become a doctor.

This needs to change. How? I’m not really sure. I think the most important thing is that we watch what assumptions we make about a person, and what words we use. The fact that this costume made it all the way to the store shows the lack of awareness to these issues. I don’t think that all the people involved are horribly prejudiced against people with mental illness – many of them probably are affected by it in someway; but the stigma is so ingrained that we don’t even realize how harmful it is. If we portray people with mental health issues as dangerous to the rest of the “normal” people (in fact, statistically speaking it is the other way around), this view is going to be ingrained in our psyche to the extent that we might be worried about a person with a history of mental illness being our doctor, teacher, or lawyer.

We need to stop thinking about mental illness as someone else’s problem. “There’s me and then there’s the mentally ill”. People with mental illnesses are everywhere. For as long as we view them as “the other” or the “mentally ill person” there will be stigma. We don’t talk about a person who has (or had) cancer as “the cancer person”. We talk about them as who they are, and they also have cancer.

A history of mental illness does not define who a person is or what they can do, and it’s about time we all start recognizing that.