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’”
“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.
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”
Last week Mr Lamb criticised Newbury-based Jokers’ Masquerade, telling the BBC it was selling outfits that “reinforced stereotypes”.
Jokers’ Masquerade’s website, www.joke.co.uk, 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.
A petition has been launched on Change.org 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.”