Halloween is a yearly holiday observed around the world on October 31. Typical festive Halloween activities include trick or treating, attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.
With that said, does the historic misunderstanding of the mentally ill and our traditional celebration of Halloween have anything in common?
I began to wonder about the connection between mental illness and Halloween at a recent community activity I attended celebrating the holiday. At the event people were mingling among the participants in bizarre scary costumes. But what frightened me most were the offbeat personality characteristics the people portrayed. In their attempt to instill fear, the characters were eerily making eye contact by either overtly staring at the crowd or not looking at anyone directly. In addition, they were invading people’s personal space, making socially clueless noises and using bizarre body movements and gestures.
As a mental health professional, I recognized these mannerisms, although extreme, as similar to those on the autism spectrum. The three core symptoms of autism as recognized by the DSM-IV diagnostic manual are impairment in social interaction, impairment in communication and repetitive behaviors and fixated interests. In layman’s terms, someone with autism or autistic tendencies appears “odd.”
Imagine in bygone days an unmarried “odd” person with rotten teeth and dirty hair living alone on the outskirts of town in a neglected shack. Now imagine meeting this character on a dark night with a full moon in the background casting an eerie shadow and the wolves howling in the background – scary.
In addition to autism, all mental health disorders can seem strange and frightening. Without education and understanding, conditions such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, mood instability and schizophrenia can all look like something out of a bad horror movie.
Since it is common for us to fear the unknown and misunderstood, ancient cultures attempted to alleviate anxiety by dramatizing or mimicking what was feared. Perhaps long ago we began to tell our children stories about haunted people and their bizarre behaviors in an attempt to help us feel control over those who seemed alien and out of this world. Gradually our culture evolved to include some of the traditions surrounding our modern day Halloween.
However, Halloween poses a great danger to children and destroys their mental health. Children who participate in such celebrations often feel fear, emotional suppression and aggression and are susceptible to suicide.
Moreover, Halloween’s religious aspects contradict Christian education.
Halloween is celebrating “the cult of death and the devil.” Halloween should be considered “improper” The holiday has “negative influence” on the youngsters’ “spiritual security” and their “moral values.”
The “trick” behind mental illness is that it is NOT a result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing. The “treat” is that mental illness is treatable. Knowledge about diagnosis and effective treatment can bring our society out of the dark ages and give dignity to all who suffer.
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New York State Office of Mental Health 1-800-597-8481