Asylum from Stigma
Asylum. An innocent word steeped in history, and lately, on the tip of the tongue for many people working in the mental health sector. Thorpe Park’s now eight-year-old attraction, The Asylum, came to my attention last week, for portraying mentally ill people as criminally dangerous, and was quickly criticised by many people, both mental health service users and care providers, for being stigmatising.
Within half an hour of hearing about it, and seeing Thorpe Park’s reaction to the criticism they were receiving, I had set up a petition to Thorpe Park, asking them to close the attraction down. Since then, I’ve spoken live on BBC Surrey’s breakfast show as well as LBC drivetime, recorded an interview for Manchester’s KEY103 (to be broadcast on Monday), countersigned a letter written by The Lancet psychiatry journal alongside all the major mental health charities in the country, and been published on the Independent website.
I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all the arguments in favour of the attraction over the last week, but unfortunately, none of them actually stand up to any sort of scrutiny. This blog post is intended to deconstruct a few of them.
- Stop over-reacting! It’s just a bit of fun designed to scare people!
- It’s been around for eight years and you’re only saying something now?!
- Why do you want to ruin Hallowe’en for everyone?!
- Nobody really believes mental health patients are dangerous.
- There’s loads of others just like it!
- It’s not meant to be a realistic experience.
- It’s based on a horror film, not real life.
- You haven’t even experienced it, how can you know it’s stigmatising?
- Thorpe Park isn’t calling the actors patients, YOU are! You’re perpetuating stigma, not them!
- First the costumes, and now this! It’s political correctness gone mad!
- I have mental health issues and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it! You’re making it worse by acting like mental health patients are weak with no sense of humour!
- Surely you have bigger things to worry about?
Right, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with it. Using people with mental illnesses to scare people as a form of entertainment is frankly just sick and wrong. If Thorpe Park had created a “scary cancer patient ward” featuring people running along with cannulas and bags of chemotherapy drugs, would people be so quick to defend them?
It hasn’t come to my attention in the eight years it has been running, but as soon as I was made aware of its existence, I objected. I defy you to object to something you haven’t heard exists.
There are six attractions as part of Fright Night, of which Asylum is only one. We don’t want to ruin Hallowe’en for anyone: we want to make the world a safer, kinder place for people with mental health issues.
Yes, they do. Research published by the National Mental Health Development Unit shows that 71% of people with mental health issues report being victims of crime in their local communities because of their mental health history, and an increasing number of people (up 7% in as many years) believe people with mental health issues are “prone to violence”. Relatedly, MentalHealthCop blogged recently about a study published by Victim Support, which features statistics like “45% of people with a serious mental illness were victims of crime last year – three times the rate of the general population“, and it seems quite likely that people with mental illnesses are victimised in this way precisely because people think they are dangerous and to be feared. Twitter user @MentallyJaded explained this really well in their latest blog post:
“You see, the ‘fear’ is generated purposefully by the interaction with the patients. The whole premise of Asylum, is that the building has been taken over by the ‘dangerous’ people it was constructed to control. For added effect and association, the ‘mental patients’ are covered in various wounds to perpetuate the thought that you will come to physical harm, culminating in being chased with a chainsaw for reinforcement.
In short, the sinister undertone of ‘‘They’ will hurt us if we don’t control ‘them’’ seems to be the main theme for the whole sorry spectacle, and one that purposefully continues to adhere to damaging stereotypes that are both inaccurate and dangerous.”
(And yes, the last sentence is entirely accurate: Thorpe Park replied to the Royal College of Psychiatry’s open letter with a stock response that rehashed arguments RCP had picked apart, demonstrating that they hadn’t even bothered to read the letter properly.)
There are other rides with similarly unfortunate names, that is true, but as pointed out by MentallyJaded in the above post, that’s all they have in common with Asylum, which actually uses popular ideas of what mental health patients are like – criminally dangerous people who are out of control – to create amusement. Once again, we wouldn’t do it to people with physical illnesses, so we shouldn’t be doing it to people with mental illness either.
Whilst the likelihood of all the residents of a present day psychiatric ICU forming an uprising and attempting to brutally murder any visitors with chainsaws is admittedly pretty low, it remains fact that Thorpe Park are presenting an inaccurate image of what a mental health patient is like – that is, their suggestion is that people with mental health problems are criminally dangerous, when we have established that many are not, and are in fact more likely to be victims of crime.
This is particularly pertinent in the wake of criticism of NHS mental health services and their over-reliance on physical force to control service users, resulting in Mind calling for face-down restraint to be banned. (Ask any healthcare professional and they’ll tell you restraint is for the patient’s safety, or for the safety of others – but it’s questionable how often staff form a restraint team without giving verbal de-escalation a chance.)
It’s clear that the places we treat mental illness and learning disabilities are not the most fun places to be incarcerated, especially if you have no choice in the matter, as is the case for the many people formally admitted under the Mental Health Act. Indeed, being locked up on a mental health ward can be a living nightmare for some people, in a way that makes me feel really quite saddened, and that Thorpe Park are demonising the very people that society is meant to be helping is completely wrong.
This is a terrible excuse. There are many many other films that don’t stigmatise mental illnesses that they could have chosen from. Not to mention the fact that, as has been pointed out in an open letter penned by The Lancet psychiatry journal and counter-signed by all the big mental health charities and projects in the UK (as well as myself and another mental health activist), Thorpe Park have taken aspects of the original film, and added ideas from popular culture to create their own attraction – so it is not completely based off the film, and does involve a certain amount of “artistic license” on part of the theme park, which is as arguably un-necessary as selecting that film as a basis in the first place.
One of the ways mental health stigma comes about is for something to misrepresent what it’s like to have a mental illness. The majority of us know that mental health patients are mostly not chainsaw-wielding criminally insane maniacs, which categorically proves that the maze misrepresents mental health and is stigmatising.
It’s set in a building called an asylum. Although the word asylum is used to describe providing a place of safety for other groups, such as for refugees. Take a few moments to think what sort of person seeking asylum might be locked away, frustrating them so much that when they manage to escape, they chase people with chainsaws. To use Thorpe Park’s own defence, it’s about context, and the context here is clear: the asylum’s actors are playing the role of mentally ill people.
That might be a valid argument, had the supermarkets selling the costumes not realised their mistake apologised, and (in the case of Asda) donated £25,000 to charities fighting mental health stigma. As they had the decency to engage in discussions with people who have mental health problems and came to the conclusion that they were in fact wrong to sell the outfits, this argument falls apart.
Yes, but there are also many people who have mental health problems who are affected and hurt by the stigma created by the attraction, and as a fair society, we have a duty to stand up for minority groups. If someone created an attraction based on slavery, nobody would pay attention if one or two black people stood there saying “but I don’t object to racism!” – and the same should be true here.
This is part of the bigger issue. Stigma is proven (and documented in the NMHDU fact file) to make people afraid of accessing mental health services. Lack of use results in managers saying that beds aren’t needed, and cuts being made to mental health services, so that when people do eventually try to access them, they find that they either no longer exist, or have impossibly long waiting lists. Mental health deteriorates, which means that people become harder to treat, and the general public see much worse mental health conditions, increasing stigma. The cycle begins again: people are even more aware of stigma, they avoid services, services are cut… you get the idea. Along with bed cuts, redundancies are made, and remaining staff are required to take on more and more work, causing stress levels to skyrocket, quite possibly meaning that the staff become the patients… except there’s no beds for them.
This campaign is not missing the point: it is the point. Social change takes a long time, and battles like this are the building blocks. We can’t fight mental health stigma without taking down that which perpetuates it – and that is exactly what the “scary mental patient” trope does.
The petition, at time of posting, has 5185 signatures. We’re hoping to deliver it to Thorpe Park next week. Make sure your name is on it.