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an interesting visit to Parc Asterix…

It's Halloween tonight - love it or hate it, this creepy festival is here to stay. It’s funny how it has changed and gathered momentum since I was younger (“when I were a lad…”). I really don’t remember it being such a big deal as it clearly has now become. In part I suspect this has something to do with our friends over the other side of the Atlantic – Halloween is HUGE in the States, and it is fair to say that their infectious energy for this festival has caught on here. And from a commercial perspective, Halloween can’t be far behind Christmas as a money-spinner for people in the confectionary, card or costume businesses.

Personally, although I love seeing the kids have so much fun, I do have some reservations about the whole event. This was brought into sharper focus for me last weekend. I was in France with my son, and we put in a visit to Parc Asterix, just outside Paris. If you haven’t heard of it, this is a large theme park, very much on the same lines as Euro Disney, but based around the popular French cartoon character, Asterix the Gaul. In truth, it was great fun, with my son, his friends, and the accompanying dad’s all enjoying the usual rollercoasters, waterslides and theme park rides (and associated queuing…).

Because Halloween was on the horizon, some sections of the park had special shows on, all along a spooky/haunted/horror theme. We happened upon a ‘maison de la terreur’, the ‘highlight’ of which was the experience of being chased out of the front door by a maniacal character clad in bloodstained overalls, wielding a buzzing (fake!) chainsaw. All very Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As the kids ran and screamed and the parents laughed and took pictures, I noticed the maniac repeatedly running back into the house (to chase the next group of tourists) via door with ‘Help Me’ written on it in smeared blood. Part of the set, of course, but something about it struck me. The madman with the chainsaw was asking for help! And what were we doing? Mostly pointing and laughing….

This may all seem rather abstract, and you could accuse me of taking what was a bit of harmless fun far too seriously, and maybe that’s true to an extent. I’m clearly not suggesting that we all go out and try to have deep and meaningful conversations with maniacal killers (“so, tell me about your relationship with your father….”), but I do think that any behaviour needs to be viewed in a context, and sometimes, on a preventative level, a lot of good can be done by trying to understand and reach out – before people ‘go bad’.

In addition, as I have pointed out a few times in my blogs, there is certainly truth in stigma around mental health in our society. The messages and narratives about poor mental health that we are drip fed through media, film, television or other outlets perpetuate this. Deranged madmen with bloody chainsaws chasing after people in children’s theme parks don’t really help to challenge negative views of poor mental health, in my humble opinion. It was only last year that both Tesco and Asda withdrew ‘psycho ward’ Halloween outfits from their shelves in the run up to October 31st following pressure from Mind, the mental health charity. Whilst it was good that these supermarket giants showed a response to the influence of a small charity, it is appalling that these fancy dress outfits were ever on their shelves in the first place.

Mental health stigma is real and on-going, and we all have a part to play in helping reduce it and normalising what can be debilitating and truly awful experiences. If people don’t feel able to talk about mental health, or see it as shameful, embarrassing or ‘wrong’ in some way, they will tend not to access help, and this is where many problems arise. Just some numbers to add weight to this: in 2012, there were nearly 9000 recorded suicides in the UK. This is an underestimate. In my book, that's over 9000 preventable deaths in the UK, every year. That's quite a statistic. Globally, the World Health Organisation estimate that there are over 800,000 completed suicides every year. In the UK, suicide is the 12th highest cause of death, ahead of many forms of cancer. It's a massive, massive problem.

So yeah, I’ll be out having Halloween fun tonight with the kids and our friends like many of us, but I’ll also be doing my best not to add in to existing stigma. Witches and vampires, yeah sure. Mad axemen and mass murderers, perhaps not… Happy Halloween!

Yours in psychology,


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