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Halloween Should Not Be Open Season on People Living with Mental Illness

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Halloween is in the rear-view mirror, although the kids’ candy seems to live on in infamy at least until we finally get tired of it and it magically disappears.

But now is the perfect time to talk about Halloween 2017 and beyond. Go ahead and grab a chocolate bar out of your children’s stash, heck grab two – they are small, and settle in. We need to talk.

I hoped as a society we would be further down the path in which discrimination is not acceptable in any form, but there still seems to be one population that it’s OK to disparage for the sake of entertainment.

But let me be perfectly clear, mental illness should not be distorted to feed the “fear appetite” of media or the entertainment industry. The fact that this issue is remotely contentious seems ridiculous to me. Those with mental health disorders are not the first population to be discriminated against but it seems like it’s the one group you can pretty much say or do anything without repercussions. Write something bigoted or racist or homophobic and chances are someone will hold you somewhat accountable. And they should.

The issue recently received some prominent attention this year when Knott’s Berry Farm in California closed its attraction FearVR: 5150. 5150 refers to a state code involving an involuntary psychiatric hold. Without going into a lot of detail the exhibit focused on a patient running in an “insane asylum” and bad things.

The reaction from the general public to the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween attraction closing down shows people just don’t get it. They feel like society is being too politically correct and that “do-gooders” are trying to take away all our fun. Who said Halloween can’t be fun? Ghosts, zombies, creatures, even scary killer types don’t stigmatize a population unless you add mental illness as a component. 

I get that it’s hard to comprehend this issue without any context. The fact that one in five of us will have a mental health disorder in our lifetime and we don’t get how hurtful this is shows we haven’t come as far as we thought.

Society has grown up with the false perception that mentally ill is synonymous with being dangerous and mental hospitals as creepy places with maniacal doctors. That is the perception we embed in our youth through media so it’s not surprising this seems like much ado about nothing. But what other medical population would we deem it OK to stigmatize for amusement?  Would it socially acceptable to have a cancer exhibit where patrons get hooked up to chemo machines? What about an attraction where people with AIDS are running around trying to infect you? My guess is me even writing this churns your stomach let alone someone actually trying to operate such an abomination as an exhibit.

It’s easy to say that it’s no big deal without having an ounce of perspective. As a white male it would be easy for me to say “what is the big issue with the nickname Washington Redskins?” I have no perspective and to even suggest it isn’t hurtful would be ridiculous. But people do dismiss this affront to indigenous peoples just as they say “what is the big deal about making movies or attractions where the mentally ill are psychotic killers?”

The fact is that stigma is one of the greatest barriers to people getting treatment for their own mental health struggles. We know that people do have fears of hospital treatment because of a perception created by media that these Halloween attractions perpetuate. We work so hard as a society to ensure people with physical limitations do not face barriers, but we turn a blind eye to those barriers that prevent people getting help with the mental health disorder.

So next year as your tan starts to fade and the leaves start to fall, think about the right for amusement at the expense of those battling illness. Think about the families who have lost love ones to suicide. Think about the young people who are struggling and won’t ask for help because they don’t want to be judged or have a fear that the stigma is the reality.

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