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Freddy Krueger, the horror-movie character, is one of the staples of popular culture complicating efforts by mental health professionals to end the stigma of mental illness.
By Michael E. Ross Reporter
updated 10/29/2006 9:52:38 PM ET 2006-10-30T02:52:38

Mental health professionals and advocates are battling to take themes of mental-illness out of Halloween.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says Halloween celebrations depicting psychoses and insane asylums victimize the mentally ill.

“Looking at it through the specific prism of Halloween, stigma is one of the main barriers to people getting help when they need it,” said Bob Carolla, a spokesman for NAMI, a mental health advocacy organization based in Arlington, Va.

“The stigma is linked to the perception of violence, even though research indicates that people with mental illness are no more prone to violence than the rest of the population,” Carolla said.

The culprit? “It’s often a haunted house attraction dressed up with some kind of mental illness theme, usually presented as an insane asylum,” he said.

Haunting haunted houses
A NAMI project called StigmaBusters, meant to shift attitudes about mental illness in popular culture, has had some success making direct appeals to organizations that use insanity themes. If a film, program or event is seen as stigmatizing the mentally ill, StigmaBusters, and NAMI affiliates throughout the country, contact the producers through e-mail alerts. StigmaBusters has more than 20,000 e-mail subscribers, including hospitals, media outlets and universities.

A community haunted house, sponsored by the Wheaton, Ill., Jaycees, changed its “Insanitarium” theme this year, after objections made public by the project.

“We realize that mental illness is a serious problem that can have a great personal impact on many lives,” the organization said last week on its Web site announcing a change in the 2006 theme, and apologizing for the “Insanitarium” concept.

A pop-culture staple
Images of the mentally ill have been a staple of movies and television for years. The 1978 film “Halloween” followed Michael Myers, an escapee from a mental institution, on a murderous Halloween-night rampage. The film, considered a pioneer of the slasher movie genre, has been re-released this month. “Halloween 9” is set for release in October 2007.

Amusement parks have also adopted psycho themes. Paramount’s Kings Island, a park near Cincinnati, Ohio, continues to advertise “The Asylum” and “PsychoPath,” two of its Halloween attractions for “Fearfest 2006,” despite NAMI's objections.

“We're really appealing to teens and young adults, and we're using the theatrics of thrillers they enjoy,” said Maureen Kaiser, spokeswoman for Kings Island, in defending the attractions.

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Kaiser said that none of the park’s attractions “are intended to offend anyone or to make light of mental illness, adding that no park customers had complained.

But she said NAMI's objections would be considered in shaping the “future of the attraction.”

‘Perception rather than reality’
For Carolla, negative perceptions of mental illness in pop culture can be as much implied as shown.

“It’s perception rather than reality,” Carolla said. “Besides the Halloween movies, you've got the film ‘Psycho,’ and there've been others. Sometimes it’s violent movies. Sometimes it’s comedies where people with serious [mental] illness are presented as the butt of jokes.”

“It's pervasive throughout the popular culture, which is one of the reasons this is so difficult,” Carolla said. “You don’t necessarily find organizations outside the mental health community willing to take on the cause and contribute to anti-stigma efforts.”

Bigger than Halloween
That said, Carolla says progress has been made in cultural depictions of the mentally ill that extend beyond specific Halloween themes. Carolla said the USA Network drama “Monk,” whose main character is an obsessive-compulsive detective, has attracted positive response from the mental health community for its depiction of that disorder. (USA Network is a property of NBC Universal, parent of MSNBC.)

And he called the 2001 movie “A Beautiful Mind” “a tremendous breakthrough in terms of educating the public about schizophrenia.”

The Entertainment Industries Council, a group that focuses the entertainment industry on health and social issues, has just produced a guide for screenwriters to use as a reference on bipolar disorder.

And on Nov. 29, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration and the U.S. Advertising Council will start a national anti-stigma campaign, with public service announcements, aimed at changing the public’s perception of mental illness.

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