I was there to promote ‘A Day in the Life‘; a groundbreaking project that aims to collect the stories of the daily ups and downs of ordinary people with mental health problems.
I’ve often talked about my desire to give a voice to ‘those silenced by stigma’. It’s a reasonable aim, only slightly let down by being a) highly egotistical and b) frankly impossible. I’m just one man telling one story. But that’s what makes ‘A Day in the Life’ so different, and so exciting. It doesn’t matter who you are, how loud you can shout, or how ‘interesting’ your day. This is a chance for everyone with mental health problems to share their story, not just strange men who run around dressed as dogs.
When the chance came to help promote the project, I was hence unnaturally keen. What I hadn’t realised was there’s a huge difference between offering to help, or even agreeing to an interview, and the reality of opening your home, and your soul, to a national television audience.
As a scientist, I’m fairly used to public speaking. I’ve spoken to rooms of researchers. Halls of doctors. I’ve even done a sciencey stand-up routine. In a comedy club to a paying audience. OK, I admit, that last one was terrifying. Luckily they were very friendly (in other words, very very drunk).
But when the time came, none of that was remotely useful. I wasn’t talking about science. This wasn’t the safe world of facts and evidence. It was just me. #BlackDogRunner. And I didn’t even have my mask to hide behind. So I did my best, but I found it hard. And in the time that’s followed, I’ve been very anxious. Anxious that I said something stupid. Anxious that I’ll appear sick and sweaty. And anxious that the kitchen will look… well… pretty much like it did on the day. But then again, I can’t think of a better way to promote a project that’s about the unpolished reality of life with mental health problems…
About ‘A Day in the Life’:
‘A Day in the Life‘ aims to capture what the ordinary daily experiences of people with mental health problems living in the UK. Taking part involves sharing up to 700 words, on four specific days over the coming year. The researchers are particularly interested in anything that made that day better or worse; about worries and comforts.
The more people that take part, the more influential the project. So if you experience mental health problems, please please consider signing up. The first day is FRIDAY 7th NOVEMBER. And what thing tends to make my Friday’s better and more comforting? Takeaway pizza!
Asda and Tesco responded appropriately, by apologising and removing the items from sale. Asda even donated £25,000 to Mind, a refreshing change from the hollow apologies that we’re usually expected to accept. But it was the positive reaction of those with lived experiences of mental health problems that was most memorable. Not content to simply complain, thousands shared photos of themselves to tell the world: don’t believe the myths, people with poor mental health aren’t scary.
Rethink Mental Illness called it the ‘biggest mental health moment of 2013‘, and it certainly felt like a watershed. This wasn’t just a niche issue, prompting a localised reaction among a group of die hard campaigners, it was offensive in a way that the public understood. And the campaign that followed, to reveal the true face of mental illness, was a moving and powerful reaction to what could have easily remained a negative story.
This year, neither the story, nor Halloween, had really made it into my consciousness until the sudden and tragic death of Becki Luscombe in September of this year. Becki suffered from depression and anorexia, but was primarily known for her intelligence, insight and quirky sense of humour. It was she that started the positive #MentalPatient movement. Her death was a stark reminder of the very real burden of mental ill health, even among those desperately seeking the best available care.
Against that backdrop, I confess I’m all the more upset to find that, despite everything that was achieved last year, despite that ‘watershed moment’, mental health is once again Halloween fair game. Indeed, for fancy dress store Joker’s Masquerade* – who this year are selling a range of ‘lunatic psycho costumes’ – it appears to be open season.
Even as someone who has so far avoided hospital admission, I found the content deeply upsetting. Not just for the costumes, but for the descriptions alongside them. (I’ve added a few examples at the bottom of this blog, but am not including them in the main text, because they have no place here)
And the sad truth is, there will be a market for it. Fancy dress – especially Halloween fancy dress – has an uneasy relationship with political correctness. Last year, it was not uncommon to hear of people dressing as Jimmy Saville or Harold Shipman. I personally find such ‘humour’ pretty pathetic. But it would be a mistake to think my outrage, and the outrage of many others with mental health problems, is simply on grounds of taste. So let’s get this clear:
I don’t mind being offended. If that’s how people want to get their kicks, fine.
But costumes like these aren’t just harmless fun. The ‘worst’ consequences aren’t just causing offence in a few lily-livered liberals.
On the contrary, by reinforcing the existing ignorance and stigma surrounding mental health problems, such ‘humour’ further marginalises a vulnerable minority who need precisely the opposite. There’s already far too much shame surrounding mental health. People are afraid to admit they’re ill and seek the help they need. We don’t need this made any worse by perpetuating a culture of mockery.
Last year, Becki Luscombe and thousands like her helped me feel less alone. Mental illness is scary. Not because the people who experience it are scary, but because it’s scary to feel so alone and ashamed. Don’t add to that for one night of cheap laughs. Don’t buy or wear costumes that mock the one in four people who experience mental health problems. I can’t believe I have to say that in the 21st century.
In some ways, the Jokers’ Masquerade site is a tour de force in mental health stigma, and I’m afraid I don’t have the time, the energy, or the willpower to go through and explain it all. So instead I’ve added what I thought were the worst examples, highlighting what I thought were the most offensive or stigmatising aspects.
1) The Blurb
‘Welcome to our asylum of Lunatics and Psychos costumes, all waiting to escape from the grips of our warehouse this Halloween. Away from the fictional world of zombies and werewolves, the human character can be terrifying or even more so than any other monster seen at Halloween. Make a change from your standard ghost and devil outfits, which people are just not scared of any more, by choosing a piece from this great collection of psychological horror costumes. You may know twisted characters you want to become, or you may just be looking for a little inspiration, whatever your reason for looking through this category you can be reassured that you will be getting one of the most innovative and up to date costume designs on the market today. Release your crazy side for an unforgettable fright night this Halloween.‘