Thorpe Park - an open letter

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Posted on 24/10/2013

Dear Thorpe Park,

Your Halloween attraction, Asylum, has provoked a strong response from the users of mental health services, as well as carers, health care workers, academics, and others with an interest in the field. Your response thus far indicates that you are unclear as to why this depth of feeling exists.

Your spokesperson reportedly said that Asylum is “not intended…to be in any way offensive or to be a realistic portrayal of a mental health or indeed any other institution.” We would argue that you are not taking account of several factors: first, the history of mental health institutions, and the continuing suffering of patients in substandard facilities worldwide; second, the fact that attractions such as yours don’t just “[draw] on classic horror film content” but shape culture as a whole; and third, the sheer extent of the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems every day.

The title of your attraction and its content derive from the perceived horrors of the asylum. We believe the true horror of these institutions was the treatment visited on their many unfortunate patients. Shackling and other forms of physical restraint were used, and indeed, are still employed in many parts of the world—a situation described as “an unresolved global crisis”. You might recall that, in the bad old days of UK asylums, the public were permitted to come and observe patients for their amusement. You will therefore understand that a “simulated experience” reminiscent of human rights abuses is in very poor taste.

As outlined in a recent report entitled At risk yet dismissed: the criminal victimisation of people with mental health problems, 45% of those with severe mental illness were victims of crime in the previous year. They were also five times more likely to be a victim of assault than were people in the general population. However, “entertainments” such as Asylum perpetuate the myth that mental health problems are synonymous with dangerous, homicidal behaviour. The aggregated effect of this is considerable. International surveys have shown that 72% of people with schizophrenia felt the need to conceal their diagnosis, while 79% of people with depression reported discrimination in at least one life domain. One researcher was told that the experience of stigma was worse than the mental health problem itself.

We hope and believe that perceptions of mental health are already changing: the recent action by Asda and Tesco in withdrawing “mental health patient” costumes marks this shift. We, and many others, see Asylum as an embarrassment: by changing its name and theme, it is possible to entertain the public without perpetuating harmful stereotypes.  You have the opportunity to restore your organisation’s reputation, and support some of the most vulnerable and neglected people in society. Please take it.

Yours sincerely -

Sue Bailey, President, The Royal College of Psychiatrists
Sue Baker, Director, Time to Change
Niall Boyce, Editor, The Lancet Psychiatry
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind
Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet
Paul Jenkins, CEO, Rethink Mental Illness
Katie Sutton, University of Salford
Graham Thornicroft, Professor of Community Psychiatry, King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry
Mental health blogger and activist [Twitter: @Sectioned_]

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