Poor Taste in Brooklyn

Unfortunately, Halloween spurs costumes and depictions of scary events that misalign and stigmatize persons struggling with mental disorders. Based on the number of Hollywood horror movies that promote this prejudice, no one should be surprised. Still, it is frustrating. And hurtful.

ABC’s smash hit, Dancing With The Stars, featured a dance routine last night where three of its male participants appeared in straight jackets, including one dancer in zombie makeup, escaping from behind bars. Thankfully there was no mention of the “insane.”

Perhaps the most blatant display this year of insensitivity appeared on the webpage,  A Brooklyn Limestone in Progress, whose owners are renovating a residence and charting their progress on the Internet.  Under the headline: Halloween Decor Reveal: Welcome to the Asylum, the owners pushed evey hurtful stereotype possible, including an especially offensive invitation to visit their house.

The front is a faux apothocary label and the back label reads:

When the voices in your head
threaten to overtake,
commit to confinement
for society’s sake.

When the ghosts in your mind
become too much to bear,
we’ll sedate and subdue
with the greatest of care.

We’ll listen and treat 
whatever your claim,
before we label you 
criminally insane!

Your admittal is confirmed
on October thirty one,
processing starts at four
at Kings County Asylum.


Julie Parks, a regular reader of my webpage, alerted me to this example of poor taste and also tipped off the Treatment Advocacy Center, which condemned the Halloween webpage yesterday on its blog.

In an email to me, Julie wrote that she understands there are bigger issues to be fought, but she still finds it hurtful that people can be so insensitive to persons who have symptoms of a mental disorder.  In addition to tipping off TAC and notifying me, Julie attempted to post a comment on the offensive blog. She wrote:

“I really am shocked and offended by this invitation. I’m always amazed, 
that while we’ve evolved enough as a society to know that racism, 
sexism, and making fun of people who are developmentally or physically 
disabled is far from acceptable, mental illness is still fair game. 
There are people you pass on the street every day who have either been 
confined at one time or another to a psychiatric hospital, or who have 
had to visit a dear loved one suddenly stricken with the worst of 
illnesses. It is because of the callousness and insensitivity of things 
like this that explain why there is still so much shame and stigma 
attached to diseases of the brain. I challenge you to spend one week-end
visiting your nearest state psychiatric hospital. Talk to one family 
visiting. Find out just one story. Then let me know if you still feel 
comfortable with your little invitation.”

The owners of the house and writers of the blog blocked and removed her comment, but they did respond in an email. They told Julie that they never had any intention of ridiculing anyone, adding that they felt “hurt”  by Julie’s criticism.

Julie responded:

 I didn’t make the point in an attempt to hurt you, but in an attempt, in the strongest way I could, to make you think about if what you’re doing actually will hurt others. I mean, do you really think you would still have chosen this theme, and written your invitations as you did, if your son or daughter heard voices everyday as a result of schizophrenia, and had actually been in and out of real psychiatric hospitals? I just cannot imagine that you would! Yes, we will definitely have to agree to disagree. Since I’ve been reading your blog for a little while, I felt that I had to let you know how this reader feels. And now, since it’s clear we see things so differently, I will respect the fact that this is your blog, and I won’t read it or comment again. I wish you the best.


Thanks Julie. It may be a small fight, but it is a worthwhile one for those of us who love someone with a mental illness.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Thank you so much, Pete. Since my beloved son’s suicide in 2008, I have found very little strength to face the truth of how little care, and downright fear and hostility, there is toward those suffering with mental illness. Especially when I know the answers are there. We know what works. There just isn’t enough outrage by the mass of people who have never had to experience someone close to them go through this. But, thanks to you, and to all the amazing advocates I’m meeting every day, I’m starting to find the empowerment that comes with fighting the fight. A fight that needs all of us. Thanks for giving us, and me, that voice. Here is something I wrote about 10 months before my son, Ronny’s, death, that I think is appropriate to share here:

    “I have to be a witness. I have to bear witness to his tenacity, and pain, and loneliness, and bravery, in the face of the monster. No one who passes him on the street, or in the store, has any idea, they are witnessing the grandest courage, someone braving the dragons, in fear and trepidation, but with sword drawn. In all that he has faced, he continues to hang on to life. How does he do it? Despite the pain I have to witness, and the pain it causes me, I have to admit, I feel honored somehow…that I know. That I see it, even if no one else can.” – Julie Parks

  2. Shucks Pearls says

    Thank you Julie…you are a valiant warrior.

  3. I agree it may seem like a small fight, but I remember growing up, how I was conditioned (by movies, TV, and the adults’ attitudes around me) to fear and distrust the mentally ill, including – and i am so ashamed and saddened to admit this – my only aunt, who suffered from schizophrenia.   Later, two of my four siblings were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and a huge part of my adult life has been spent coping with the effects of mental illness on myself and on our entire family.   If only I had been educated about mental illness as a child – and taught compassion, not fear, for those suffering from it –  things might have been easier for all of us.   Cultural attitudes toward the mentally ill are deeply ingrained, and probably harder to change than anything else (including laws).  But I do believe that it is with these baby steps that people can start to change, to literally “raise consciousness” to a higher level of empathy toward our fellow human beings.