THOSE tricky Hallowe'en costume problems might just have been solved.
If you want to scare the wits out of people, go out on the night in the guise of an in-house novelty buyer for Asda, Tesco or Amazon. It should be enough to leave any party-goer aghast. For the companies, the obvious question has not yet been answered: what were they thinking? No doubt those "completely unacceptable" errors can happen to anyone trying to part the thoughtless from their money. But a "mental patient fancy dress costume", a "psycho ward" get-up? For party capers? When did illness become hilarious?
All concerned have apologised profusely, of course, and the costumes are no longer available. Asda has made a £25,000 donation to mental health charity Mind; Tesco has grovelled. All concerned would rather we forgot about the entire affair. After all, "heartless" and "crass" are not words with which major retailers like to be associated.
Nevertheless, the fuss throws an interesting light on a couple of issues. One has to do with language and the type of person liable to say that political correctness has gone - and here's a dusting of irony - "mad". The idea seems to be that the right to free speech trumps all, that prejudice must always be allowed to speak its tiny mind, and that any offence is trivial when liberty is at stake. The costumes were surely "a bit of fun". People "shouldn't be so sensitive".
In general terms, most of us would agree. Self-censorship is ugly and absurd. Language - or dressing-up - should not be restrained. Offence, real or imagined, is these days used too often simply to shut people up. Satire and comedy depend on a hint of outrage. I'll defend my right to sarcasm, invective or rotten jokes until they take away my pontificating licence. Isn't it plainly true, in any case, that some folk are off their heads?
If we pause, though, most of us also grasp that language shapes thought just as much as thought shapes language. People who employ casually racist speech because their environment allows it tend to wind up with the full set of witless racist attitudes. "Acceptable" words confirm every prejudice. When did it do any harm, in any case, to think before speaking?
I don't know who ordered those costumes for Asda, Tesco and Amazon. Clearly, a number of individuals must have been involved. I don't know what they were thinking, but I know what they were not thinking. They were not thinking: "This is ugly. This isn't slightly funny. This could make life harder for those whose lives are hard enough." Self-evidently, the idea of stigma did not cross their minds.
You could argue, nevertheless, that the controversy has done some good. The companies, to their credit, got the point instantly. The rest of us were given a chance to think again, perhaps, both about the words we use and the attitudes behind them. That can't happen too often.
The costumes made a statement, of sorts. They said any illness that isn't physical is a laugh. "Mental" is funny. The outfits demonstrated that if we demand that kind of joke we have not advanced much from those who used to tour the Bedlam hospital, gawping and giggling at the inmates. But that knowledge doesn't solve every problem.
By sheer coincidence, Ed Miliband included a thoughtful passage on attitudes to mental health in his Labour Party conference speech. He told of a letter from a 17-year-old who had been hospitalised for 10 weeks because of depression and anxiety. The young woman wanted Miliband to understand that if her difficulties had been identified earlier, the NHS could have been saved a lot of money.
The politician said: "We've swept it under the carpet for too long. It's a bit of a British thing, isn't it? We don't like to talk about it. If you've got a bad back or if you're suffering from cancer you can talk about it, but if you've got depression or anxiety you don't want to talk about it, because somehow it doesn't seem right." Miliband then claimed that mental health is "an afterthought in our National Health Service".
I'm not so sure about the last assertion, save in economic terms. There have been any number of good and valuable NHS awareness campaigns. Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell have done brave work in talking about depression and mental health issues generally.
The Hallowe'en costume furore would seem to suggest that public opinion is, mostly, more sophisticated than the public want to believe. The statistics, meanwhile, say that most of us will suffer in some way, at some point, from ailments of the mind.
Stigma remains, as Miliband implied. It is still far easier to turn up in a workplace with a physical illness than with a problem that cannot be X-rayed - colleagues and employers are not so easily convinced by less visible health problems. Labour's leader was wrong only in believing that we no longer speak of these things.
The difficulties are conceptual, therefore linguistic. Depression, above all, is an idea stranded somewhere between "feeling a bit miserable" and a crippling paralysis. The evidence is hard to state, far less to prove. When specialists then turn around and say that some exercise can help, that "pulling yourself together" isn't such a bad idea, the reluctance to treat depression as an illness returns.
Those who suffer are not helped by what might be called celebrity afflictions. Is everyone in Hollywood bipolar these days, or is that just another style accessory? Fry's savage and funny honesty about his troubles has been undermined by the feeling that the condition has been oddly prevalent among those in the public eye. Or do celebrities better represent the hardships of modern life?
Last week, we learned that increasing numbers of Scots take anti-depressant drugs. In a single year, the medication was dispensed to 747,158 people. That was an increase of 28,828 patients on 2011-12. Are doctors becoming lax? Have we begun to medicalise every mood and emotional upset? Or are hard times having their usual effect on folk who believe all their struggles in life are pointless?
Figures out last week suggest that one in six of us in Britain are considered "mentally ill". That assertion could cause interesting problems for the Asda public relations department. The trouble with the claim, though, is that it diagnoses people who do not recognise themselves as being ill. The idea is not impossible, but it pushes at the boundaries of language - someone is saying you are unwell whether you know it or not. There's truth in that, intuitively, but nonsense too.
It might be better to think again about the facts we have to hand, such as they are. The charity Rethink Mental Illness asserts, for example, that England endures 33,000 needless deaths a year, including from smoking, drinking and obesity, simply because society fails to understand the problems of psychological health and how that affects behaviour. The alcoholic isn't just an addict, but also a person in deep emotional trouble.
So what happens when we face the fact? As a society, we might not like what we find. But at least we might realise some jokes stopped being funny a long time ago.
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