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Halloween costumes 'demonise' mental illness, warns minister


Halloween costumes can become a “dangerous” culture that brands the mentally ill as “psychos or schizos or freaks”, a government minister will warn.

Liberal Democrat care and support minister Norman Lamb will give a speech urging retailers not to “demonise” people with mental health problems by selling trick-or-treat and party outfits that mock psychiatric patients.

His address to the National Child and Adult Services (NCAS) conference in Manchester comes after several joke outfits depicting dangerously violent mental patients in chains and wearing masks made headlines after going on sale online.

Mr Lamb is due to tell the conference: “For me it is horrendous that, this Halloween, a young person experiencing a mental health crisis could easily come across someone in a ‘psycho ward’ or ‘schizo patient’ costume - complete with handcuffs and ripped restraints - as much as they could see someone in a Dracula costume.

“It conditions all of us to fear mental illness - to see people as ‘psychos’, or ‘schizos’ or ‘freaks’”

Norman Lamb

“This Halloween culture is dangerous. It conditions all of us to fear mental illness - to see people as ‘psychos’, or ‘schizos’ or ‘freaks’,” he said. “It makes us believe that mental illness is something other worldly.

“We have to tackle this damaging stigma which prevents young people from seeking help when they need it, or talking about any problems they might be having,” he said.

“Everyone should be able to enjoy Hallowe’en but I urge all retailers to behave more responsibly - don’t demonise mental illness,” he added.

Last year, supermarkets Asda and Tesco came under fire for selling Halloween costumes which were said to have caused offence.

Norman Lamb

Norman Lamb

Asda withdrew its “mental patient fancy dress costume” and Tesco took its “psycho ward” outfit off the shelves. But similar outfits are still widely available online.

Earlier this month, a health trust boss said such Halloween fancy dress outfits were offensive and damaging.

John Lawlor, chief executive of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear Foundation Trust, said people would never wear a “cancer patient” Hallowe’en outfit, and so they should not treat mental health issues so flippantly.

“People would never wear a “cancer patient” Halloween outfit, and so they should not treat mental health issues so flippantly”

John Lawlor

Last week Mr Lamb criticised Newbury-based Jokers’ Masquerade, telling the BBC it was selling outfits that “reinforced stereotypes”.

Jokers’ Masquerade’s website,, was still selling a £12.45 “Adult Skitzo Costume” on 30 October, consisting of an orange jumpsuit with “a set of black vinyl shackles and belt, plus a restraining face mask to complete the look”.

It also offers a £20.99 “Maximum Restraint Halloween Costume” consisting of a straightjacket and a mask like that worn by Anthony Hopkins when he played cannibal killer Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

Northumberland, Tyne and Wear Foundation Trust

John Lawlor

A petition has been launched on calling on Jokers’ Masquerade to withdraw the costumes.

The petition organiser, Rebecca Holdcroft from Leeds, wrote: “This is offensive, stigmatising and extremely damaging not only to public perception of mental illness, but also the people affected by it. It’s not right, and it should stop.”

In a blog written after Mr Lamb’s criticism last week, Jokers’ Masquerade’s Mike Dawson said the website’s staff have been sent “abusive comments, blasphemous and expletive remarks” on social media.

He said the company was disappointed to have been singled out over the “Skitzo” outfit which is also on sale on other websites and that it had withdrawn costumes in the past, including one of Jimmy Savile.

He added that the company did not intend to offend people but wanted customers to be able to make a choice themselves, saying: “We will not be forced into knee-jerk decisions, but are happy to receive constructive criticism.

“These past days, we have listened to the mental health proponents and made various edits to criticised products,” he said. “This has included renaming product titles, descriptions and category pages to dilute this sensitive area for some.”


More on this story:

ASDA has shown us how little progress has been made

What will it take for people to realise that making money out of other people’s misery is utterly unacceptable?




Readers' comments (3)

  • Norman Lamb is right - and anyone who might think that he is being a killjoy should consider the question asked - would you take the rise out of someone who has cancer? Very few people who do not work in the field of mental health understand just how common mental health difficulties are. Sufferers keep it quiet to avoid just this kind of stigmatization, which means they are often prevented from getting the help they need. Maybe I am old fashioned but I can't help wondering, what has happened to the old standards of kindness and good taste?

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  • Halloween itself is not dangerous at all. I don't like the outfits that supposedly depict mental health patients and I would like those to stop being sold, so I'm with Mr. Lamb on that. But Halloween has been around for a very long time and most of the celebrations / costumes/ traditions are just innocent fun.

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  • It's the commercialisation of everything: how do you operate within a market system? You create a market. It will have to be for something you don't need, because we have access to most that we do need. So, you will convince people to buy things that they do not need, and then they will.

    People were pushed out of manufacturing to become mere consumers of product. Next step: people have become the product, directly, via cosmetic surgery. Why do people, now, do the things they do when they did not before? They are convinced that their nose is wrong, their teeth are not white, etc.

    Where is this going to end up? Public services and society at large pick up the tab for separate units of people following ideas.

    If supermarkets did not sell these items, they would not lose sales. They just sell them because others are selling them, and fear losing out. People do not have more money to spare, they just diversify, meaning other sales go down. They fail to realise that some other people will not spend in their shop because the displays are off-putting - if only from a messy, gaudy warehouse-look image, and not just because of the offence.

    We follow America because we need new ideas to sell. These are not new ideas, just new way of competing. Same with fireworks, Christmas outside decs, etc.

    There we go! And the NHS engages in a similar, with gadgetry and building-styles that fail to follow 'universal design' or 'generic best practice' principals.

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