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Are Mental Health Patient Costumes for Halloween?

04/10/2013 10:30 BST | Updated 02/12/2013 10:12 GMT

Are Mental Health Patient Costumes For Halloween?

Several leading supermarkets caused controversy recently by selling mental health patient costumes for Halloween. This led to a backlash and the supermarkets, once it had been brought to their attention, quickly withdrew the costumes and publicly apologised. As a scientist researching conditions such as schizophrenia, anxiety and autism, I was pleased to see this response. But why would anyone think a mental health patient costume was for Halloween?

Very common

In part people fear mental health conditions not because they are rare and mysterious, but because of the opposite reason: they are so common. Many of us experience unwanted thoughts, experiences, and cognitions and they are not (usually) enjoyable. We try to push them away, and a misguided part of that is mocking, stigmatising and making a joke out of them.

In my own research, we find that many adolescents report feeling paranoid, having hallucinations, and feeling depressed. It shows that these experiences are normal and common in the general population. The next step in this research is to try to understand what causes some people to have more and more of these symptoms and to become so distressed that they need medical help.

Genes and environments

The types of environmental risk factors that put people at increased risk of developing schizophrenia, for example, are not pretty. Trauma, abuse, stressful life events... Just thinking about any of these makes most of us respond with support and sympathy, rather than mockery.

All mental health conditions are heritable, which means the reason some people develop them is partly due to their genetic make up. You may be thinking to yourself ... yes but any genetic risks underlying mental health conditions are not going to be in you and me ... they will be rare and deleterious and in other people. Well in some cases it is true that the genes involved are rare and deleterious (though we still need to understand and accept them) but what we also know -- and listen up because these new findings are mind boggling -- is that a lot of genetic variants associated with psychiatric illness are very common.

One of the biggest genetic effects in a recent genetic study of five psychiatric disorders was for a variant present in 33% of 'cases' (those with mental health conditions) compared to 35% of controls. Yes you have read those numbers correctly and yes it was a 'statistically significant' finding. This shows that there are marginal differences in the rate of common genes influencing or protecting against psychiatric conditions in individuals with or without these conditions. We are all walking round with some combination of genetic variants in our DNA that play a role in mental health problems. It's like the Mark Twain quote, but with a new bit added: " When we remember we are all mad (in our genes), the mysteries disappear and life stands explained "

Time to Change

I hope that scientific progress will soon have an even better grasp of what causes conditions such as autism and schizophrenia. Just as the important Time to Change programme is saying, one way to help individuals already with these conditions quite directly, today, is not to stigmatise, isolate or bully them. Let's stick with pumpkins and the make-believe on October 31st and have a Happy Halloween everyone.

Dr Angelica Ronald is director of the Genes Environment Lifespan laboratory at Birkbeck, University of London. She is short-listed for the Women of the Future 2013 Science award. www.gel.bbk.ac.uk @gelironald

Dr Angelica Ronald has been shortlisted in the 2013 Women of the Future Awards.

For further information click here.

The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 13 November and is hosted by Real Business in association with Shell.