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When Stereotyping Goes Too Far... The 'Mental Patient' Costume Controversy

26/09/2013 15:52 BST | Updated 26/11/2013 10:12 GMT

All publicity is good publicity. Well, in the case of the recent controversy surrounding the 'mental patient' costumes on sale at various supermarket chains in the UK, that may well be the case. It is rare that an organic, natural opportunity for fighting stigma arises - most of the time we see well planned-out print campaigns or dedicated charity efforts. But today something incredible happened. A spontaneous outbreak on Twitter as a response to the public outrage at such costumes being on sale well and truly put sceptics in their place about the strength of mental health campaigners.

'Mind' charity and the 'Time to Change' campaign combined forces to challenge Twitter users to tweet pictures of their own 'mental patient' costume, with the emphasis being on the idea - the fact! - that such an outfit is not fancy dress, but merely identical to the every-day dress code of the general public. In other words: I, as a former 'mental patient', am exactly like any one of you. I do not, apparently contrary to the opinion of Halloween costume designers, have un-combed hair, wear a blood stained, torn-up nightie, or carry an axe for those oh-so-common moments when I lose control of my own behaviour and feel compelled to hack into the nearest unfortunate passer-by.

Responses to the call for more realistic portrayals included photos of a former inpatient on her recent wedding day, several people wearing jeans and T-shirts going about their daily business, and a man in a suit on his way to work. All of whom had suffered from some form of mental health condition. Nowhere to be seen were any abnormalities or deviations from the accepted social norm.

With such regular focus in the news on the stigma surrounding mental health, and whether it is necessary, it seems unbelievable that in 2013 supposedly family-orientated supermarkets would deem it acceptable to display such disgusting suggestions. Whilst schools are working hard to teach children tolerance of individual differences based on an anti-discrimination viewpoint, they are simultaneously being presented with the paradoxical image of a wholly false stereotype during standard shopping trips with their parents.

Despite the scope of the modern internet era, you may wonder how a Twitter movement, with its limited target market, can change the views of an opinionated society. The fact is that to change many we must begin with changing one. Each one person who encounters the #mentalpatient phenomenon which, incidentally has gone as far as to be trending on Twitter, will be confronted with the reality that mental patients, as they have been thoughtlessly dubbed by the supermarkets in question, are in so many respects exactly the same as anyone else, and so we have no cause to fear them - as suggested by advertisements proclaiming 'everyone will run away from you in fear... it's a terrifying Halloween option!'

Twitter, and the brave people who have shared their stories, I salute you.