Thursday, 28 November 2013

Who's afraid of the mental patient?

Mental health stigma seems to peak around Hallowe'en season. We all heard about the outcry over major supermarket 'mental' costumes back in September.

I know I'm a little late to the Hallowe'en party but I was in Hobbycraft the other day (other craft shops are available, etc.) browsing through the books. Whilst browsing, I found Super Scary Crochet, which I had seen and liked before so I started to flick through. Lots of the patterns are really fun, I liked "Mummy" (and really liked that her description of a mummy, whilst brief, aims at accuracy - nerd alert!). Unfortunately, in the middle of a lot of really fun amigurumi patterns is "Murderous Mental Mary".

Murderous Mental Mary
"Mary is a serial murderer who lives in an institution ...
She has murdered lots of nurses and ... doctors"
Pattern (c) Nicki Trench,
According to the pattern description, "Mary is a serial murderer who lives in an institution, but occasionally escapes. She has murdered lots of nurses and has a blood lust for doctors. Each time she kills, she dribbles blood with excitement" (see left, below).

Mary's inclusion in this book plays into the same fears that the "mental patient" and "psycho ward" costumes play into. There is no need to play up a character with talk about mental health issues, or "institutions", but the hyperbole of horror is always out to shock, and my guess is that this was the author's intention here. A murderer in a high-security prison? Not scary enough. Let's make her mental, and add some "blood lust" in for that extra frisson of excitment.

Murderous Mental Mary
"Each time she kills, she
dribbles blood with excitement"
Pattern (c) Nicki Trench,
To be clear, although I think this is all pretty rotten, Nicki Trench didn't invent the idea of the "mental patient" as a figure of horror and disgust any more than did Tesco and Asda. The fear of the "other" and of a loss of control are well-documented areas of the human psyche. We fear that we know we could become, the things that hold up a mirror to what we perceive as the worst of ourselves. A murderer is horrifying, but a murderer who is out of control and "mental" is almost irresistible to our own internal lust for horror and fantasy. This always has been the case, one only needs look at the ways in which Bedlam hospital was opened to the public for their gawping in the C18th to see the noble history of how we relate to mental illness. 'Bedlam' is also currently the name of a popular C4 documentary about a mental health trust in South London; the very name has become synonymous will illness and spectacle. (For a good overview of the history of Bedlam, I would recommend Catharine Arnold's excellent study, Bedlam: London and its mad.)

Don't misunderstand my intentions here, I'm not going to start calling for people to stop stocking Ms. Trench's books, or start a letter-writing campaign. Nicki Trench is a talented designer, and I'd always urge you to support creatives - they need to eat, too. 'Mary' is but a symbol of how widespread in our culture the fear of "madness" is. 

I also want to address the accusation that people who are worried about the association between horror and depictions of mental illness have lost our sense of humour. I am always aware of the risk of "going on about stigma or overblowing it. It might seem petty in the grand scheme of things, but I see people day in, day out, who are terrified of disclosing mental health issues to anyone (even a professional) in case they lose their job, lose their friends, are labelled a "freak". That fear hasn't just popped into their heads from nowhere, the stigma is real and damaging. It leads people to avoid seeking help, and in extreme cases not seeking help can lead to death.

If you want to do something to help, take a look at Time to Change. You could even sign up to their pledge and make my day. 

To end on a lighter note, here's a video made by the charity Bring Change 2 Mind: