Monday, 11 September 2017

Why are we still okay with ‘haunted’ asylums at Halloween?

It’s that time of the year again. I love autumn leaves, autumn colours, pumpkin spice lattes. I love Halloween. What I don’t love, is the constant use of Halloween to reaffirm the stigma around mental illness.

I’ve written about it before. But at this time every year, another event, another TV show, another movie, uses former lunatic asylums and mentally ill patients as a trope.

The Nightmare Realm, who run ‘haunted house’-type experiences in Ireland, are adding some new elements to their popular scarefest this year in Dublin. One such addition is a haunted asylum. 

It’s all a bit of fun. I’m overreacting right? I mean, there are scary doctors involved with inhumane treatments, not just scary patients!

The problem is that there still remains a stigma around mental health. People with mental illness are still seen as and treated as second class citizens. Mental illness changes how our friends, family, and workplace see us. We lose friends, we lose our jobs, we lose custody of our children.
Many people struggling with their mental health are still to afraid to seek help. They hide it because they don't want to lose any of these things. They don't to be seen as weak, helpless, pathetic. They don't want to be seen as scary, dangerous or unstable. But the asylum continues to reaffirm the image that we're dangerous, threatening and savage.

Despite modern psychiatry having moved away from not only the word 'asylum', but the very idea of confining people with a mental illness, horror loves to reuse and rehash it for cheap thrills.

It's a widely popular theme and it's directed into our homes on an almost weekly basis. From Supernatural to American Horror Story - it's all over TV. The local ‘asylum’ is commonly used in Pretty Little Liars and Teen Wolf to add an element horror. Even Modern Family have gone there, receiving backlash for their homemade asylum episode, full of insensitive jokes about mental health:
“Sexy people go crazy too. Read a People magazine.”
“She spent six months in a cuckoo farm in Nevada… She gets mad when I say that. It was in Utah.”
As a teenager, lacking any sort of mental health education in school, I thought asylums still existed. I thought that sad, mad and bad people were all locked up. I was scared of those people. They weren't like 'us'. When I started to struggle with my own mental health, I worried that I too would be locked up if I told anyone. I didn't want to end up in an asylum.

Don’t get me wrong. Asylums were horrific, horrible and terrifying places. Patients were not treated with dignity, in fact many were not ‘treated’ at all. Bedlam or Bethlem Royal Hospital, the most infamous such institution, is best known for how it publicly displayed the interned ‘lunatics’. Like animals at a zoo, people would visit and walk by the cages either pointing and laughing, or jumping in fright at what they saw.

But haven’t we moved past that? Haven’t we all accepted how wrong and immoral it was for mentally unwell people to be publicly displayed for entertainment and horror? So why do we keep returning to asylums at Halloween?

The Nightmare Realm, like many other similar events around not only the country, but the world, would like to reaffirm that stigma. They want to show you how the patients ‘live’. And considering some of the images they use in their promotion, I can guarantee you it’s not going to be an accurate, fair depiction.
Source: The Nightmare Realm
The straitjacket is a nice touch.

Is it too much to ask for a Halloween where people with a mental illness are treated as PEOPLE, not jokes?

We are already stigmatised on a daily basis. People are scared of us. Your straitjackets, gurneys and shackles reaffirm people's incorrect beliefs of us. Your inhumane treatment tells people that we are less than human. That we are so less than human we can be experimented on, laughed at, poked and prodded for your own pleasure.

Running an asylum for Halloween is not and should never be acceptable. It perpetuates the stigma around mental health. Asylums scare people into not seeking help, because no one wants to end up like that. It creates an us vs them. And like anyone else, even I want to be on the 'us' side.

I am not less than human. I deserve better than to be represented by the image of a straitjacket in an asylum.

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