Group Stands Against Halloween Depictions of Mental Illness

The National Alliance on Mental Illness and its local affiliates are speaking out to shut down the negative portrayals of mental illness in haunted Halloween attractions.

Halloween is a time of tricks and treats for many, but for advocates at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it’s a time that can set back efforts to destigmatize the condition.

“Each Halloween we feel a little trepidation because we know that there’s going to be rides, TV shows, costumes—just depends on what year, what comes up—that stigmatize people with mental illness,” NAMI CEO Mary Giliberti said. “And this year in particular we’ve seen some fairly disturbing rides and costumes that have mocked and stigmatized and stereotyped people with mental illness.”

It’s about really treating this like a health issue, because it is a health issue, just like cancer, just like diabetes, just like other health conditions.

Scenes of mental illness or mental hospitals are often incorporated into theme park attractions, costumes, movies, or shows as a fear factor—a depiction that reinforces the stigma on mental illness and could harm patients and their families.

Giliberti said that attractions wouldn’t depict cancer patients or chemotherapy to scare audiences, and the same support and compassion should be extended to those suffering from mental illnesses. “It’s about healthcare. It’s about really treating this like a health issue, because it is a health issue, just like cancer, just like diabetes, just like other health conditions,” she said.

In the U.S., 50 percent of children and 60 percent of adults with mental illnesses go without care. Giliberti explained that these images of mental health patients could further prevent those who need help from seeking it. This issue especially affects younger generations because 75 percent of mental health conditions occur before the age of 24, and suicide is the second- largest cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.

NAMI’s local affiliates help drive much of the organization’s advocacy efforts by tracking attractions or costumes that need to be addressed. The local efforts are then supported by partners and national efforts.

“There’s been a concerted effort and partnership with many other organizations both inside and outside the mental health community who care about these issues to highlight this,” Giliberti said. “And I think that’s how we’ve been successful in seeing some of the costumes get pulled from stores, seeing some of the rides come down; it’s that local effort, combined with our efforts nationally as well as partners, that we have coming together for a common cause.”

For example, NAMI’s Orange County (California) chapter drew attention to an attraction owned by Cedar Fair that was named “FearVR: 5150” after the California code that allows for the involuntary confinement of individuals suspected of having a mental disorder that puts themselves or others in danger. The chapter, NAMI, and a local church sent letters to the company, which led to the attraction’s closing, though the number had already been dropped from the name.

In addition to sending letters to theme park companies and their sponsors, as well as to costume manufacturers and stores, NAMI also participates in social media conversations and online advocacy and partners with local organizations. Giliberti said it seems awareness around the issue has increased, and she hopes it will bring an end to these depictions of mental illness.

And while Giliberti realizes some people think this advocacy work is overly sensitive or takes the fun out of Halloween, she says that’s not NAMI’s intention at all. “We’re all about the scare, we’re just not about the stigma.”

An example of the kind of treatment NAMI is speaking out against. (iStock/Thinkstock)

Alex Beall

By Alex Beall

Alex Beall is an associate editor for Associations Now with a masters in journalism and a penchant for Instagram. MORE

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