‘Scary’ ghost asylum tours contribute stigma against mental health patients, says charity

They lead to outdated beliefs of what psychiatric care is like

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The Independent Online

Mental health charities have criticised a series of ghost tours around former mental asylums across Britain over the summer.

During Mental Asylum Ghost Hunts, which are run by hauntedrooms.co.uk, visitors are taken on tours led by a paranormal team and are given the opportunity to take part in vigils and séances, experiments, including a Ouija board, glass divination, table tipping and medium workshops. Groups are also given personal space to explore these “frightening” and “sinister” locations.

But charities say these kind of events are helping to reinforce negative stereotypes around mental health.

Kate Nightingale, head of communications at Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma campaign, said it was “concerning” that so many old mental health institutions are now being used as attractions.

“This can only add to the stigma which still surrounds mental health problems by perpetuating the myth that those of us with a mental illness might be ‘scary’,” said Ms Nightingale.

“It also contributes to an outdated image of what mental health wards might be like – which can’t be helpful for anyone considering seeking help for a mental health problem,” Ms Nightingale added.

Andy Bell, from the Centre for Mental Health, said: “There is still a huge stigma around mental health in our culture and changing it means tackling some deeply ingrained prejudices and fears.

“We are seeing signs of change, for example the Twitter campaigns on Halloween costumes a couple of years ago with the ‘mental patient’ costume.

“So we’ve had some really successful, potential change, led by people with mental-health conditions, but inevitably it’s still deeply ingrained in our culture and it takes a lot of work to change those misconceptions. We need to move towards a society in which there isn’t a market for something like this.”

Concern from the public has led to a petition to have a ghost hunt event at Newsham Park Mental Hospital in Liverpool next weekend shut down. Mia Scott, 23, from Liverpool, set up the petition to shut down the event which was being advertised as an “ex-orphanage and mental asylum”. 

Tickets for the event, which has sold out, cost £75 and the online blurb boasts of an 18-month waiting list to join the tour. Among its attractions are tours of the hospital’s psychiatric wards and glimpses of 14 “naughty” cupboards reserved for “unruly children”.

Ms Scott explained that it was the wording online that “sprang to [her] attention”, particularly words like “sinister”. Ms Scott said: “When I saw that they were playing on the fact that it was an old mental asylum I think that is quite stigmatising. They’re selling the tickets for £75 and I just thought, ‘They’re capitalising on other people’s misery’.”

She added that people seem to think that “because this is an ex-mental asylum, the ghosts there are apparently going to be scarier or it’s a more sinister location than if it was a castle, for example”.

James Harris, head of communications at the Mental Health Foundation, said: “We would be concerned in the sense that they are trading on the history of these buildings in a voyeuristic way when really they serve as a reminder of how badly treated people living with mental illness were.

“Also of concern is whether or not there are sufficient facilities and healthcare available for people living with mental distress in both Doncaster and Liverpool today.”

But the mental health charity Sane said there is a danger about taking these events too seriously. Marjorie Wallace, chief executive, said: “It does not serve the cause of reducing stigma to take situations like this too seriously. However, we should respect the fact that many people did suffer in these old asylums.”

The Independent contacted hauntedrooms.co.uk for a response, but had not received a reply at the time of going to press.

Tasteless tourism - The dark side

- The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 226,000 people, swept a Sri Lankan train travelling from Colombo to Galle deep into a forest. The site has become a tourist attraction.

- An “extreme rodeo” is held twice a year inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Prisoners, mostly of whom have never ridden a horse, ride bulls and bucking broncos for the entertainment of visitors. “It’s an awesome sight, providing you like seeing people hurt,” one told The Daily Telegraph.

- Plans for ghost tours in Belanglo forest in New South Wales, Australia, where seven backpackers were murdered in the 1990s, were scrapped after a public outcry.

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