Us Versus Them: Has Our View of Mental Illness Changed for the Better?

Twitter is a powerful tool, and for the uninitiated you only have to look at the flurry of angry, indignant and even venomous tweets directed at Asda and other supermarkets earlier this week to understand how quickly real-life change can follow from a single online tweet. After a post which condemned a Halloween costume by Asda, which portrayed a “mental patient” as a bloodied axe-wielding zombie complete with quasi-straitjacket attire, a surge of retweets and posts urging Asda to rethink their shocking choice filled the Twitter-sphere. The response to this poorly chosen product ranged from pure disgust from many individuals with mental illnesses themselves to big helpings of psycho-education from mental health charities such as Rethink and Mind.

From this, a plethora of angered and inspired individuals took to social media and began to bombard Asda, and indeed most of Twitter, with casual pictures of themselves adorned with the hashtag, #mental patient. Alongside the smiles, tongue-in-cheek humour, and good-natured poses was also found the message, “scared yet?” in direct reference to the description of the costume on sale by Asda, Tesco, and even Amazon. The speed at which all of this took off showed both how quickly a single idea can spread through online media and how emotive, and understandably sensitive, the topic of mental health stigma is to us as a society.

Upon seeing the incalculable tweets directed at the supermarket giants, I suddenly thought back to a series of ads by Time to Change which tackled mental health stigma surrounding schizophrenia. The particular video advert which came to my mind showed a sinister and creepy opening reminiscent of a typical horror movie, only to show a normal middle aged man drinking a cup of tea who informs the audience of his long-standing diagnosis of schizophrenia. This stark contrast between the reality and the misconception has direct parallels with what has happened in response to the Halloween costume.

Nonetheless, in this case it was most probably carelessness which resulted in the sale of the costume in question and the pop-culture references to the likes of ‘Hannibal Lecter’ are apparent for Tesco’s costume. Yet, it still highlights a poignant point about how we understand and distrust mental illness as a society. Indeed, we are surrounded by stories and headlines about paranoid schizophrenics who have committed yet another violent atrocity, whereby a culture of fear of the unknown is propagated. This, alongside a lack of basic psycho-education about what it means to have schizophrenia, highlights quite clearly how and where these negative views have their genesis today. In addition, pure ignorance and overt carelessness has constructed an image of mental illness as either the stuff of nightmares – a proverbial bogeyman – or nothing more than a fabrication which people should just “get over”, or “man-up”. Indeed, the latter’s thoughtless tone is potentially even more insulting than the former, and articles such as ‘Depression? It’s just the new trendy illness!’ may be sufficient to make my point clear to anyone reading this.

However, the enigma that appears to be mental illness has received an uneasy reception, typically full of distrust and prejudice, going much further back than that found today. In the 19th century, the proliferation of the asylum saw a wide scale institutionalisation of those deemed insane – a title worryingly easy to attain – and a state sanctioned segregation of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It was this systematic movement to separate those “insane” individuals that led 20th philosophers such as Michel Foucault to comment on the ‘Great Confinement’ of the mad, and anti-psychiatry movements flourished during this period in opposition to the poor and dehumanising treatment of fellow human beings. For those of you with a basic understanding of the term ‘care in the community’, you will know that it has only been in the past 50 years that psychiatric institutionalisation has ceased to be the norm for those with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

In spite of all of this, although these discussions have questioned whether we have truly moved past the discrimination and stigmatisation of those mentally ill in society over 150 years ago, there have been some positives from the recent Halloween costume uproar. The response by those who should be most offended; mental health groups such as Rethink; individuals who originally posted pictures of themselves as “mental patients”; and the wider social media community has been amazing and somewhat heart-warming. Beyond the #mentalpatient photos which have now flooded twitter, it has sparked a surge in posts and discussions promoting anti-stigma campaigns and support for those who are likely to be most affected by these negative stereotypes. The large retailers themselves have stepped up and, although scorned as insincere by a few, they have apologised and had the offending items removed within no more than an hour of their existence even going viral. Furthermore, they have pledged to donate sizeable amounts of money to mental health charities such as MIND. Admittedly, they didn’t have much choice, yet the charities who work hard to reduce stigma will ultimately still benefit (£25,000 for TimetoChange from Asda).

Ultimately, what is most encouraging from all of this was the speed at which a society showed its indignation for a gross misrepresentation of vulnerable people and this raises hope, for me personally and apparently for many others, that ending mental health stigma – although still very much present – is a cause the public, online and offline, are not afraid to fight for.

For anyone who would like to find out more about the issues raised in this article, you can find extra information on mental health from Rethink.

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