Saturday, October 22, 2016

Stop Profiting from Pain

Walmart’s suicide costume is an affront to decency and morality
My son at age four

“Why do you tear me?
Is there no pity left in any soul?” 
Dante’s Inferno Canto VIII, John Ciardi trans.

I’ll never forget the first time my child talked about suicide. He was four years old, sniffling and shivering after a several-hour fit of thrashing, incoherent rage. As I rubbed his white-down hair and cuddled him, he said, “Mom, I don’t want to be anymore. I just want to be a zero.”

Nine years later, when I finally learned my son’s diagnosis, bipolar disorder, after years of specialists, hospitals, tests, medications, juvenile detention, and ongoing suicidal ideation, I was relieved. I knew people who lived with this illness and managed to have successful, happy lives. In fact, one of my closest friends from childhood, diagnosed with bipolar disorder in college, had married a wonderful man, raised four children, worked as a librarian and historian, and was writing her sixth novel.

Many of the 10 million people[i] in America who are diagnosed with severe mental illness can live healthy, happy, productive lives. But instead of celebrating their bravery, our society stigmatizes their illness by mocking it in horribly offensive ways.

There’s no time of year mental health advocates dread more than Halloween.

Every single year, it’s the same thing. Mental illness becomes the punchline of a joke, or the theme of a horror attraction. This year, Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags did the right thing, shutting down their horrific asylum-themed virtual reality attractions when advocates expressed justified outrage. A representative from Six Flags explained the company’s decision to me in an email: “This is a good lesson for us all about perpetuating stereotypes, and we apologize to anyone that we may have offended.”

This is a lesson that Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, desperately needs to learn. A picture of a “razor blade suicide scar wound latex costume make up” (I won’t link to it, because it is a real trigger) is the latest and most egregious example of the ongoing battles people with mental illness and their loved ones must face to educate the public about the reality of mental health conditions.

Imagine if I told you that my child had an incurable illness with a risk of death as high as 20% [ii] If I told you that the illness in question was cancer, you’d be bringing my family casseroles, organizing community bake sales, and demanding that your legislators provide more funding for research and treatments. 

You’d be outraged by my inability to access quality medical care for my child. And you would be furiously calling for a boycott if a major retailer released a Halloween costume called “bald head cancer patient latex costume make up.”

But when I tell you my child’s illness is bipolar disorder, you back away. The risks and challenges are the same (I know—my father died from cancer when I was in college). But when I and other advocates express our outrage about suicide costumes and asylum-themed attractions, you tell us, “Stop being so politically correct,” or “Can’t you just take a joke?”

No, I can’t just take a joke. To those who don’t understand why this is all so wrong, I say in all sincerity, I’m glad you don’t. I am glad that you have never lost a child, or a parent, or a spouse, or a sister or brother or close friend to a choice-stealing brain disease. Because the pain of that loss never heals.

And I’m glad that you have never had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, to come out the other side a survivor, but still struggling in a society that thinks your illness is “a joke.”

Our pain—and our loved ones’ pain—should never be used for entertainment or profit. If you think that I am just too thin-skinned—that I can’t take a joke—I have a Halloween costume idea for you. Go as yourself. You scare me.

[i] Serious Mental Illness (SMI) Among U.S. Adults. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from
[ii] Pompili, M., Gonda, X., Serafini, G., Innamorati, M., Sher, L., Amore, M., ... & Girardi, P. (2013). Epidemiology of suicide in bipolar disorders: a systematic review of the literature. Bipolar disorders, 15(5), 457-490.


kdos said...

I had posted the link to the Walmart link on our local NAMIFC website. It's disgusting what people think is "entertainment" on Halloween. Your blog is great. I have a son who has had paranoid schizophrenia for 10 years and am active with NAMI. I respect what you are doing! KEEP IT UP!

Unknown said...

Well said, my friend, well said. Nancy

Isaiah Shores said...

Psychiatrists, doctors and researchers continue with their dangerous experimentation and research about so called brain disorders like bipolar, yet when we pay them to listen to our experience they actually barely listen to their "subject" and just want feedback on the medication effectiveness. It's all so arrogant and self involved from the medical side. Honestly,after 20 years of their crap, I see clearly they know very little about "brain chemistry" because the theory is bunk. The mind is not the brain. Reality is subjective based on perception, etc etc. But psychiatry won't let you call them on their b.s. Survival requires questioning and being skeptical of these rats every instruction or declaration.

Unknown said...

After 17 years as a nurse practitioner, working only in psychiatry and sleep, I can say that story shapes the symptoms and symptoms shape the story. Working closely with therapists and family members and anyone in the circle of support gives me more of the lived experience than I can ever gather in my 30-45 minute sessions. Mental health is treatable in this time in history. People get better and I am proud to know I have been in the presence of others when symptom and story are treated with attention and love and respect.

tears_hide_behind_smiles said...

As a 28 year old who has struggle with this illness since my teen years, thank you. As someone who was told by her own parents, "It's a phase,you'll grow out of it you don't need a doctor," thank you. As some whose "friends" told her, "You don't need help, you don't want to be labeled do you?", thank you. Mental illness isn't funny, it's not a joke, it's not a punchline. Thank you.

Unknown said...

You just took my breath away. Five years ago, when my son was four was the first time he asked me to take him to heaven. Just reading your words has simultaneously reopened and closed a wound within me. Thank you.