Why it’s never ok to mock mental illness

Few of us enjoy perfect physical health all of the time, and the same is true of our mental health

Why it’s never  ok to mock mental illness

I love Halloween. It’s far more fun than Christmas and involves more dressing-up. Every year, we have a theme — zombie bankers, zombie Olympic athletes, vampire royalty. We get into it — latex, fake blood, severed limbs, glue-on injuries, plastic eyeballs.

But what we will not be doing is dressing up as a ‘mental patient’. We won’t be ‘psychos’ on the loose with meat cleavers, or blood-spattered inmates in white hospital clothes. It’s not that my household is too politically correct — there are photos of my son, aged six, in bandages with a carefully faked head injury so realistic you’d gag — but there’s a difference between pretend gruesome and poking fun at vulnerable people.

We are all mental patients. Few of us enjoy perfect physical health all of the time, and the same is true of our mental health. One in four of us is suffering from mental-health problems — from mild depression to full-on paranoid schizophrenia. It’s all around us, every day. Why supermarket chains, Tesco and Asda, thought it was acceptable to sell ‘mental-patient’ Halloween costumes is baffling — would they sell, say, inflatable wheelchairs, or joke dialysis machines? Not likely — there would be outrage. We don’t mock physical problems, but it’s okay to laugh at mental illness?

The Sun newspaper ran a headline screaming ‘1,200 Killed By Mental Patients’. This was soon after a 16-year-old Birmingham student was killed on a bus by a young man who had severe mental illness. The man had not been hospitalised. He had been released from prison without any follow-up care. The student was a random victim of his illness.

This is the extreme of mental illness, and The Sun headline was a willful misrepresentation of the facts, reinforcing negative stereotypes and implying that all people with mental-health problems are a danger to society. Tesco and Asda were doing the same, by selling Halloween costumes that suggest illness of the vital organ in our heads is more threatening than illness of the vital organs in the body. The Sun, Tesco and Asda are big enough and powerful enough to know better — their actions are corporate negligence.

Whatever you might think about the recent confrontation between Sinead O’Connor and Miley Cyrus, it highlighted how easily the label ‘mental patient’ can be hurled as an insult. We dismiss people with words like ‘loony’, ‘nutter’, ‘mentalist’. I use these words myself, without even thinking about them — but, like most people, I would never dream of using words that mark people out by their race or sexuality. This would be bigotry, prejudice, ignorance — behaviour that would leave me feeling appalled. So why is it still okay to use derogatory words around other people’s mental health?

Two reasons. First, you can’t see mental illness. It’s invisible — there are no tubes, bandages, crutches. Secondly, it manifests in a way that can make people behave differently than the norm, whatever ‘the norm’ is.

You might dress strangely — winter woollies in summer — or display obsessive behaviour, or show fear of ‘normal’ things, or just not quite know what to do around other people. Should this make you an object of fun or derision?

“No other species is as cruel as we are to ourselves,” writes mental patient, Ruby Wax, in her book, Sane New World. “We’d never dream of treating our pets the way we treat ourselves.” We used to lock our mentally-ill citizens in places like Bedlam, and watch them through the bars as a form of entertainment (these days we have reality TV). Until recently, we used to lobotomise the mentally ill, or subject them to electric shocks and insulin comas. Things became more compassionate in the mid-20th century, thanks to ground-breaking psychiatrists like RD Laing, but we still have some way to go.

Remember, we are all mad. The people who think they are the sanest are usually the ones to watch out for. Madness and creativity are linked — imagine how boring the world would be if we were all ‘sane’ all the time. What people with serious mental illness need is compassion, kindness, care — we might not understand what’s going on inside their heads, but this does not give us permission to be horrible about them. The real insanity lies in thoughtless cruelty — are you listening, The Sun, Tesco and Asda?

More in this section


Did you miss our Virtual Event with Alison O’Connor, Aoife Moore, Clodagh Finn, Derval O’Rourke and Vicky Phelan