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Every Little Helps: Rejecting Stereotypes of Mental Illness Is A Step In The Right Direction

26/09/2013 12:20 BST | Updated 26/11/2013 10:12 GMT

A "Mental Patient" fancy dress costume on sale at Asda and a 'Psycho Ward' costume at Tesco shows just how much further we have to go in destigmatising mental health issues.

Ed Miliband was rightly lauded on Tuesday as he called for greater openness and discussion of mental health issues during his speech at Labour Party Conference.

But Asda and Tesco have now found themselves on the wrong side of that debate. The companies' Halloween collections (yes, Halloween collections) include a grotesque and bizarre caricature of a "Mental Patient" (Asda) - wielding a meat cleaver and complete with a blood stained overcoat, while Tesco's 'Psycho Ward' costume shows a masked villain in boiler suit with a menacing syringe. A storm of complaints hit the companies on Wednesday night, with an online petition launched to get Asda to remove the item from sale. Both companies have now announced that they will be removing the costumes from their ranges and Asda also said that it will be making a 'sizeable donation' to the charity Mind - describing the item as a 'completely unacceptable error'.

Beyond the 'axe-wielding maniac' tosh which these outfits reinforce, the images both show an otherworldly character: a repulsive, dehumanised and zombie-esque face (Asda) and a masked 'psycho' (Tesco). They are not from our world. They're outside society.

And perhaps that's the most concerning part. The costumes reflect how we deal with mental health more broadly in the UK: we shun it, we caricature it, we shy away from discussing it openly.

It is a credit to Ed Miliband that he made this point, even if in doing so he came out with the fabulously unintelligible sentence: "Mental health is truly a One Nation problem." (Cue silence in the street.)

Aside the awkward shoehorning of this into Labour's narrative de jour: it's important that he said it. But he should have said it more plainly: people across the country suffer from mental health issues. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, or what community you come from - it is an issue which affects us all, and it is no answer to sweep it under the carpet.

Anyone who has experienced - directly or indirectly - the trauma of dealing with mental illness will know that these costumes are not laughable, they're quite damaging. They are a contributory factor to the stigma attached to mental health problems: a stigma which reveals itself in suicide rates of those suffering mental illness.

And the response to these costumes - which some will decry as excessive political correctness - has been a positive step in that direction. It is a recognition that perpetuating these hackneyed stereotypes of mental illness is no way address these issues as a society.

It's a small step: but a rejection of tired and offensive cliches surrounding mental health problems is a foot in the door to a more productive and open discussion of these issues. There's no quick fix to addressing societal conceptions of mental illness: but every little helps.