Halloween costumes that mock mental illness are a matter for the market
Downing Street has declined to back calls by health minister Norman Lamb for retailers to stop selling outfits that demonise mentally ill people at Halloween, saying it is a matter for consumers and companies.

Lamb, the Liberal Democrat care minister, urged shops not to sell trick-or-treat and party outfits that mock psychiatric patients, after several joke outfits depicting dangerously violent mental patients in chains and wearing masks made headlines after going on sale online.

Speaking at the National Child and Adult Services conference in Manchester, he said: “For me it is horrendous that, this Halloween, a young person experiencing a mental health crisis could easily come across someone in a ‘psycho ward’ or ‘schizo patient’ costume – complete with handcuffs and ripped restraints – as much as they could see someone in a Dracula costume.

“This Halloween culture is dangerous. It conditions all of us to fear mental illness, to see people as ‘psychos’, or ‘schizos’, or ‘freaks’. It makes us believe that mental illness is something otherworldly. We have to tackle this damaging stigma which prevents young people from seeking help when they need it, or talking about any problems they might be having.


“Everyone should be able to enjoy Halloween but I urge all retailers to behave more responsibly – don’t demonise mental illness.”

Asked about the comments, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Halloween is an opportunity to have some fun – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But respecting those who suffer from either physical or mental illness is a view widely shared. And as to what can and can’t be bought in stores, that’s a matter that will be driven by consumers and by retailers responding to that.”

Last year, supermarkets Asda and Tesco came under fire for selling Halloween costumes that were said to have caused offence.

Asda withdrew its “mental patient fancy dress costume” and Tesco took its “psycho ward” outfit off the shelves. But similar outfits are still widely available online. A senior health trust manager said this month that such Halloween fancy dress outfits were offensive and damaging.

John Lawlor, chief executive of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS foundation trust, said people would never wear a “cancer patient” Halloween outfit, and so they should not treat mental health issues so flippantly.

Last week Lamb criticised Jokers’ Masquerade, based in Newbury, Berkshire, telling the BBC it was selling outfits that reinforced stereotypes.

Jokers’ Masquerade’s website was still selling a £12.45 Adult Skitzo Costume on Friday, consisting of an orange jumpsuit with “a set of black vinyl shackles and belt, plus a restraining face mask to complete the look”.

It also offers a £20.99 Maximum Restraint Halloween Costume, consisting of a straitjacket and a mask like that worn by Anthony Hopkins when he played the cannibal Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

In a blogpost written after Lamb’s criticism last week, Jokers’ Masquerade’s Mike Dawson said the website’s staff had been sent abusive comments on social media.

He said the company was disappointed to have been singled out over the “Skitzo” outfit, which was also on sale on other websites, and it had withdrawn costumes in the past, including one of Jimmy Savile.

He added that the company did not intend to offend people but wanted customers to be able to make a choice themselves, saying: “We will not be forced into knee-jerk decisions, but are happy to receive constructive criticism. These past days, we have listened to the mental health proponents and made various edits to criticised products. This has included renaming product titles, descriptions and category pages to dilute this sensitive area for some.”

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