Ignorance + Fear = Prejudice


The charming costume displayed above was advertised by Asda as part of their Halloween “Fancy Dress” range, along with this explanatory text:

Every one (sic) will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume.

In fact in response to a deluge of critical comments, Asda has now withdrawn the offensive article but one still wonders who could have thought this was a good idea in the first place.

Years ago when I lived in London I served on the Governing Body of a residential home in Hackney for people with a range of mental health issues. Doing this opened my eyes to the level of prejudice that exists about mental health. I remember one example very vividly. After months of training to try to help one of the residents live a little more independently, she finally plucked up courage to take a trip on the bus. She bought her ticket and sat upstairs. Unfortunately, she got a bit confused and missed her stop. She then started to panic and burst into tears. The reaction of the people on the bus was at first to ignore her distress and then when got worse to forcible restrain her. The bus was stopped and eventually the police were called. She was eventually found by staff from the home in a police cell in a state of complete disarray. Months of good work had been undone.

So why had the other passengers behaved in such a way? I think the answer to that is that many people are very frightened by mental illness because they don’t understand it. Fear is often born of ignorance in other situations too, but it’s particularly striking in public settings, such as on a bus or train. In modern life we have to cope with complete strangers in many places and I think we rely on behavioural conventions to deal with the proximity of other individuals that we might otherwise suppose to be hostile. When people start violating these conventions – as one may do if suffering a mental illness – then we often respond in a way that reflects our prejudice that they might be dangerous, even though that is extremely unlikely. It’s the sane that we have to fear most.

That was way back in the 1980s. We like to think that times have changed in so many respects, but the appearance of that Asda `Mental Patient’ demonstrates that our attitudes towards mental illness are firmly rooted in the days when thousands were kept at a safe distance by being incarcerated in lunatic asylums. The stereotypical straitjacket `costume’ panders to ignorance, promotes fear, and encourages prejudice. It is truly offensive. It is Time to Change our attitudes.

For the record, here’s a picture of me taken late last summer in my own Mental Patient Costume:


5 Responses to “Ignorance + Fear = Prejudice”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    A few years ago I read Foucault’s book “Madness and Civilization” on this subject, because I was interested and it is reckoned to be a classic. But I was terribly disappointed. If anybody knows another book on the history of how human cultures decide who is and is not mad and how they are dealt with, I’d be glad of the recommendation.

    • I’ve never managed to make any sense of Foucault. As far as I’m concerned it was all downhill for him after the pendulum.

  2. Maybe there needs to be a procedure in First Aid. “Responding to People in Distress”. This would give a greater part of the community confidence in assessing and responding suitably in situations such as this.

    • I have to admit that I wouldn’t have known what to do in that situation either. Obviously she needed to get off the bus at the next stop and back to where she wanted to be, but how to bring that about with causing more distress I don’t know..

  3. Well said Peter. I first heard of this from a Facebook friend and my reaction was just the same, to post a picture of me in my mental patient costume …

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