MacDonald: Don’t use mental illness as a costume

Alexandra MacDonald

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Halloween festivities are happening this weekend, and with that comes the conversation that we all need to have about how to dress appropriately. A quick search on Amazon of “mental illness halloween costume ideas” results in plenty of polyester straitjackets and wigs that look like they haven’t been brushed since, well, ever. Clearly a joke is a joke, right? Wrong. 


Using a mental illness as a comedic costume is just disrespectful. In the same way that you shouldn’t use another person’s culture or identity as a colorful decoration, mental illness isn’t something that you can just put on like a costume. 

The World Health Organization recognizes that 1 in 4 people in the world will be affected by a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Now, that doesn’t necessarily give specifics, but it certainly includes more than just bipolar affective disorder. 

Eating disorders, PTSD and substance abuse disorders are all recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and diagnosis is required by a medical professional. Therefore, it’s not something that can be thrown around as an easy label.  

But nobody is blaming you for thinking that it is, and it’s not that hard to recognize why. Representations of mental illness in the media, like in “Girl, Interrupted,” are factually incorrect for the sake of a pretty face for viewers.

Movies like those, where a group of pretty girls with varying antisocial personality disorders decide to forego their illnesses for the better, only serve to romanticize the issue. Real mental health issues require medical attention and psychotherapy sessions, not brutal arguments and the birth of a beautiful friendship. 

All of us really should sit down and read up on these kinds of representations.

We shouldn’t assume that because something is produced in the media, it’s okay for us to reproduce it without questioning it.”

Yeah, sure, the really hot emo kid from your favorite TV show may have led to your sexual awakening, but do we really need to fetishize that kind of thing? Real mental illnesses aren’t funny or sexy, so if showing up to a Halloween party with brushed dark eye circles and red lipstick lines on your inner arms is something you think will make people laugh, you need to reevaluate what you’re doing. 

With the “Joker” movie sparking a debate on just how misinformed movies can be, we should all take into account that what we see on the screen, any screen, isn’t always factual. 

The vicious criticisms surrounding “Joker” argue against the notion that mental illness and violence go hand-in-hand, and that the movie doesn’t paint a pretty picture for people who actually have what the “Joker” character does: psychosis. 

You have one day of the year that provides you with a socially-recognized pass to be anything you want (within reason), so don’t choose to marginalize somebody with a mental condition. What happened to sexy nurse costumes or dressing as a character from “Winnie the Pooh”? 


We shouldn’t assume that because something is produced in the media, it’s okay for us to reproduce it without questioning it. Under that large umbrella is, of course, mental illness. It’s not something that can be put on and taken off whenever we want, so don’t make it a costume. 

Alexandra MacDonald can be reached at or on Twitter @alexandramacc.