Tuesday, 22 October 2013

‘Asylum’ and ‘mental patient’ themes – too PC or is it reinforcing a stereotype?

Looking on Twitter, Facebook and the BBC website I see articles and blogs reporting on how Thorpe Park’s The Asylum maze is stigmatising mental illnesses and portraying psychiatric wards negatively.  This comes weeks after supermarket chains Tesco and Asda removed their ‘mental patient’ themed Halloween costumes when they were deemed too stigmatising (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24278768).  There is a clear definition between mental health charities and anti-stigma campaigners who agree that there should be a name and theme change, but some of the general public have commented that this is becoming too politically correct and it is just a popular Halloween theme that has caused no issues in the past.

As an anti-stigma and anti-discrimination campaigner myself I can see both sides to this issue.  Firstly, I do agree that it is stigmatising.  Recently I spoke to people regarding mental health treatment and they often used the words like ‘psycho’ and ‘mad’ to define those needing treatment and describing the psychiatric wards as ‘mental homes’, ‘loony bins’ and ‘asylums’.   It always leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I hear these words as it describes these wards as scary, dangerous and dark, how ‘asylums’ are depicted in the media.  It’s also a reminder of the atrocious care that those with mental health problems received decades ago through electrical compulsion therapy.  Therefore I believe these themes reinforce the whole mental illness spectrum, and those with mental health problems, as an area of uncertainty, instability, danger and fear.  Rethink Mental Illness conducted a vote on their Twitter page for or against the ‘asylum’ theme, which shows a overwhelming ‘No’ (http://topsy.com/analytics?q1=%23asylumOK&q2=%23asylumNO&via=Topsy)

Flipping the coin, I can see why the general public think that this is political correctness taking over.  Thorpe Park commented that their The Asylum maze, for their annual Fright Nights Halloween theme, which has been operating for an eighth year running, has not caused issues in the past (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24278768).  We have to take a step back and view the Halloween themes, vampires, walking mummies, werewolves and other well-known Halloween characters.  These are all unreal with their intention to be perceived as scary and frightful.  The feeling towards the stereotypical ‘mental patient’ and ‘psycho’ fits this theme.  Games like Batman’s Arkham Asylum takes the player to a psychiatric prison for the criminally insane where the Joker, who has always been depicted as a psychopath, has caused trouble.  Films, that are popular to this day, like Silence of the Lamb and The Shining, have psychopaths as the villain.

I am sitting on the fence when it comes to this issue.  I, personally, am not a fan of the ‘psychopath’ and ‘asylum’ themed rides, events and media, whether that’s because of it’s stereotypical connection to my illness or as a matter of taste.  Members of the public (especially if you read comments on articles regarding this issue) think that mental health charities are taking this issue too far, some going as far to say that they are reinforcing the stigma and making it more of a taboo themselves.  I can see why they think this is so, but I do believe that this fantasy image of mental health is too imbedded into popular belief.  Mental health units and psychiatric wards are not places of danger or fear, but a bright place of safety and help.  I do believe that once the general public see mental illness and wards the way they deserve to be depicted then these ‘asylum’ and ‘psycho’ themed costumes and rides will become more acceptable.

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