Asda and Tesco's Halloween costumes: Censoring the word ‘mental’ just adds to the stigma

One in four of us has earned the right to make light of our suffering

When doctors found a tumour in my intestine six years ago I immediately emailed my editor to tell her. But never as I crashed and collapsed throughout my twenties thanks to the kaleidoscopic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder did I tell any boss: “I can’t come in because I woke up screaming, couldn’t get back to sleep and now exhaustion is triggering anxiety.” And that’s because of stigma.

Mental illness might be a prison, but it need only be a category C one, where, yes, you can’t just skip out, but there’s a base level of comfort. It is stigma alone that makes it not only a category A prison but solitary confinement.

This is why I object to those who jump up and down about the use of the word “mental”. Everyone is right to condemn Asda for selling a Halloween “mental patient fancy dress costume” complete with scary mask, bloodied straitjacket and meat cleaver. But not because of the wording but the grotesque lie such terrifying imagery reinforces about mental illness.

With the uproar, however, came the resurfacing of those who condemn even the utterance of “mental”. Sorry, but one in four of us has earned the right to say “being mental” and to make light of our suffering – not least because it is not being derogatory towards the person, but the bastard illness. Those who wish to see some sort of word ban seem to confuse the two: to say neocolonialism is a cancer is not being offensive about cancer sufferers.

I love the word mental. Its meaning is as wide as mental health itself. Policing it at this stage will not engender greater empathy but stifle discourse. The human rights struggle for the mentally ill lags way behind. Sixty years ago did gay people shout about their preferred terminology? No, they were in prison or in the closet, kept there by silence. Progress was made by pickaxing stigma, first by coming out.

Imagine being able to be honest and tell a colleague: “I can’t come to your leaving do because I’m so depressed I can hardly talk.” Imagine how many of Britain’s 6,045 suicides in 2011 could have been prevented if everyone spoke freely about mental health. Imagine if the teenage boy standing on a roof could have told a teacher: “I feel like I’m going mad, please help me.”

We won’t help that boy if we now start obsessing about lingo. Save that for when we feel as able to say we have anxiety as easily as the ’flu.

Until then, there’s an emergency, a more pressing target for outrage: since the Coalition formed, mental health spending has been cut two years in a row, just as the suicide rate rose by 8 per cent, from 2010 to 2011. So as a linguistic debate rages I will be planning my own fancy dress costume for Halloween: George Osborne brandishing a scythe.

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