Halloween horror brings out the best in online campaigning

26th Sep 2013

Last night brought to the attention of the mental health world an appalling example of stigma. George (Asda's clothing line), and a range of other retailers, were stocking 'mental patient' or 'psycho ward' Halloween costumes.

In the case of Asda, the caption read: "Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume. Comprising of a torn blood stained shirt, blood stained plastic meat cleaver and gory facemask it’s a terrifying Halloween option."

In the case of Tesco, the theme was more reminiscent of a high-security prison, with an orange jumpsuit and face mask and 'complete the look' suggestions including gory knives and teeth sets.

Clearly, both of these approaches are offensive, literally stigma in its purest sense, playing on a stereotyped public impression of mental health which many thought we had moved on from.

When the image and Asda link went viral on social media on last night, there was a general outcry from all sectors, led by individuals with mental health problems. The major charities, such as SAMH and Time to Change partner Rethink, also picked it up.

Complaint details for Asda were crowdsourced by those following the story on Twitter, and Asda's Twitter feed and complaints system was deluged. Within two hours of the link going viral, Asda took the costume off sale, issued a public apology to customers it had upset and offered a sizeable donation to Mind. This swift action is commendable and must be recognised and credited.

Of course, other retailers should follow suit immediately, and withdraw similarly themed costumes, with apologies. They should also all be agreeing to train their buyers and merchandisers.

There are two lessons for me from this for anti-stigma work going forward

Firstly, it is far from inspiring that this kind of thing is still happening. Asda has a reputation as being a good employer for disabled people, including those with mental health problems. I have used their staff facilities to hold mental health sessions, and they support numerous community initiatives. Yet this kind of costume was approved for sale by a team and a manager somewhere.

We need to aim to equip everyone with a basic understanding of mental health to understand that this is wrong. People with mental health problems are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Regardless of this, we need to ask ourselves what other marginalised groups could, in 2013, be objectified in this way at Halloween. People used to think Black people were dangerous and scary, but blessedly it has been generations since any decent person, let alone a retailer, would believe or promote this idea. As a mental health movement, we should aspire to this end. In this case, the retailer should have instinctively dismissed this at the planning meeting where somebody suggested a mental health horror costume.

My second point is the point of pride and excitement at the fact that people power led by those with lived experience created an upswell of action that created visible change they could all see and swept the story onto the BBC and ITV news agenda by midnight.

They did not need PR support or encouragement from mental health charities and anti-stigma campaigns. Most of the charities were not online, though those that were were using their voice well to support the individuals with key messages and pointers.

By midnight, the day was won, and at least within Asda, a corporate mind was changed by citizen action mobilised to address stigma. People could see the change they sought, and I hope it made them proud. Certainly, some people were tweeting what they were wearing, as examples of what 'mental patient costumes' actually were. I certainly thought that trick-or-treat for mental health awareness was a good idea.

This was a social media victory but we need to remember that not everyone with mental health problems has access to technology. So we must find ways of sharing the good feeling of achieving a change with them and find ways for them to feel that buzz.

The 'See Me' anti-stigma programme

Over the next three years, from November, the Foundation and the Scottish Association for Mental Health will be taking forward the renewed Scottish anti-stigma programme 'See me' into a new phase. The Scottish Government and Comic Relief are investing £4.5 million over three years to address the social injustice and multiple inequalities faced by people with mental health problems via the 'See Me' anti-stigma programme.

The campaign will shift gear, building on the traction from ten years of anti-stigma work to date. The focus will be on human rights and the mobilisation of a social movement of those with a connection to mental health, to address stigma and discrimination at community level. We want to make sure that the three in four people who don't directly experience mental health problems understand and stand up for the one in four who do. We need to recognise too that the effect of stigma and discrimination is felt by families, mental health professionals and society as a whole, when people can't fulfil their potential or die through not being able to come forward for help. Discrimination in mental health is a four-in-four issue.

The lessons from last night highlight the need for strong anti-stigma programmes to continue. Even more so, they show the potential for people to mobilise and create change they can see with only the lightest of touches from campaigning organisations.

The huge task the renewed programme will face means that creating real change will mean rely on ordinary people to amplify the messages the campaign will help them generate, as no central campaign can create enough momentum alone to make the difference in hearts and minds we need to see.

But last night felt like the morning after The Sun published the 'Bonkers Bruno' headline. Something feel different. Like stigma has a bloody nose because many ordinary people said 'not OK' together.

A-Z Topic: Stigma and discrimination

People with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination can make their difficulties worse and make it harder to recover.

Blog: 'Why the language we use to describe mental health matters'

It is perhaps not surprising that an area of health that has been so systematically stigmatised for so many decades has historically settled for a discriminatory lexicon. Generations of people have grown up in societies that found terms like “psycho”, “schizo”, “loonie” and “crazy” perfectly acceptable.

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