It's Halloween again and with that comes a celebration of all things that go bump in the night - a night where we get to face our fears, show off our bravery, and collect copious amounts of sweets. Brilliant. In the spirit of celebrating the scary, this year I'll be facing my biggest fear: mental illness.
Aside from an alien invasion and being eaten alive by a shark, my biggest fear has always been mental illness (perhaps I was pre-empting my own fate with that one). It all started when I read Jane Eyre as a child. Rather than focusing on the gothic romance between Mr Rochester and Jane, all I could think of was the crazy wife locked in the attic. The thought haunted me for weeks and weeks, or more realistically, years and years. The image of her laughing on the roof as the house burnt down is absolutely terrifying, because she isn't a monster or a vampire or some extra-terrestrial being - she is one of us, a normal person pushed to the brink of her mind.
It seems I'm not alone in this fear. 1 in 7 of rotten tomatoes top horror films list are directly about mental illness - though more could be argued to have roots in the topic - films about possession for example, which was originally derived from a fear of the different. Even the Royal Opera House are pushing the stigma around mental illness, putting on a special dance version of the tragic tale of Cassandra for Halloween.
This fear of mental illness has long been part of our history. The Victorians created insane asylums to lock up anyone that didn't satisfy their understanding of 'normal' - mostly women, some suffering from common illnesses like post-natal depression, others for simply having a more active sex drive. Further back in time, the persecution of 'witches' stems from a similar fear, historians asserting that the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were actually a purge of the mentally ill.
So what is it that drives this fear of mental illness? Like most fears, it seems to be a fear of the unknown and unexplainable, but scarier still is that it's rooted in reality - it could happen to any of us. And that's where it gets really scary - if you're unfortunate enough to be one of those cursed with mental illness, you're then pushed to the outskirts of society to suffer on your own. Ever tried getting help from an NHS doctor for anxiety, depression or something worse? Try a 6 month waiting list just to see a councillor, or get referred for a psychiatrist appointment with the referral letter never appearing in the post.
If we can celebrate witches and vampires and all other things frightful, why can't we embrace mental illness in the same way? Rather than push it out of our minds, we should embrace those that need a little more help, support them, let them know they're not alone, because god forbid one day it might be you. Asda and Tesco might have withdrawn their 'lunatic' costumes, but hundreds of other retailers are still selling them, perpetuating the outdated image of Mr Rochesters crazy wife burning down the house.
Mental illness doesn't have to be scary. It doesn't equate violence and murder - you actually have a higher chance of being a victim if you have a mental illness than you do of being a murderer. It doesn't even equate being a 'psycho' or 'weirdo' - chances are you have several friends who have suffered from a mental illness of sorts at some time in their life. It's much more common than you would believe, so let's stop the circle of stigma and celebrate those that have to be brave enough to deal with scary things on a daily basis.
So this Halloween, don't don a white jacket, dress up as an alien instead.