The run-up to Halloween has already seen two of our biggest supermarkets in trouble. Both Tesco and Asda have hastily withdrawn and apologised for two of their Halloween costumes, one described as a “psycho ward” costume and the other as a “mental patient” costume.

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Photo: Middlesborough Town Talk

Asda’s “mental patient” ensemble consisted of a torn and blood-stained tunic which came with its very own plastic meat cleaver, whilst Tesco’s “psycho ward” costume was essentially an orange boiler suit with a plastic jaw restraint (think Hannibal Lecter). No faux-weaponry was provided with Tesco’s outfit but worry not – the website suggested ways to “complete the look” with a fake machete.

Mental health charity Mind has released a statement criticising the supermarkets for being “out of touch” and accusing them of “fuelling stigma.” Huge numbers of people have spoken out against the insensitivity of the outfits, and they are right to be offended.

People with mental health problems generally do not wander around covered in blood. Nor do those who spend time in mental health hospitals (or “psycho wards” as Tesco so sensitively describes them) walk the streets brandishing various weapons.

What people with mental health problems do face is a stigma which still runs deep in our society. The promotion of the myth that those with mental health problems are violent or are a minority to be feared is damaging. One in four people will experience mental health problems at some point, and a reluctance to seek help is a huge issue. Misperceptions of mental illness can make it all the more difficult for individuals to take the first steps in asking for help.

Whilst there was an outcry of disbelief that such a poorly considered product was ever allowed onto the shelves, there was a predictable chorus of “political correctness gone mad!” across social media.

But this really isn’t so much about political correctness as it is about pure and simple correctness. Politics has nothing to do with this issue, labelling something as a “mental patient” costume when it bears absolutely no resemblance or accuracy is incorrect. Not only is it incorrect, it also perpetuates the idea that mental illnesses and those who suffer from them are to be feared.

At least some positives have come out of this whole fiasco. Mental illness and our perceptions of it have been thrust into the limelight. Above all, it was heartening to see such an outpouring of support for those affected by mental health problems, showing that the ill-considered use of utterly false stereotypes is not something that will be tolerated.