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Thorpe Park must close down its stigmatising Asylum maze

Can corporations please stop casting mental health patients as maniacal killers?

In the last few days I’ve been accused of “ruining Halloween”, had a petition started against me and been labelled paranoid and a meddler. Why? Because I took a stand against the stigmatisation of mental health. I called for the closure of Thorpe Park’s attraction 'The Asylum', a themed maze based on an asylum for mentally ill people, with guests being chased by 'patients'.

Research into the effect of stigma on people's lives has shown that 71 per cent of people feel limited by attitudes towards mental illness, and 6 out of 10 employers openly admit they would not consider someone with mental health problems for a job. This is why the clumsy and insensitive handling of mental illness by companies like The Sun, Asda and Tesco is so socially irresponsible... and now Thorpe Park as well.

In the wake of the Halloween costume fiasco a few weeks ago, when Tesco and Asda were lambasted for their tasteless costumes depicting mental health patients, I have to ask: how could anyone at Thorpe Park HQ think this would be a good idea? Asda quickly made a humble apology following their error of judgement, making a donation of the £25k profits from the costumes to a mental health charity. 

Interestingly, Thorpe Park took a different tack. As people made complaints on Twitter, they repeatedly tweeted back saying that they had not received a "serious level of complaint" and would therefore not be taking any action. I decided I wanted to show Thorpe Park what "serious complaint" looks like, and that's when I set up the petition on Change.org.

Not everyone agrees with me - more than one petition has been created in opposition. Some feel this is "political correctness gone mad". I was accused of not being able to have fun. I disagree.

It’s not just the word. Calling the attraction 'The Asylum' isn’t the point. It’s the link to mental health patients, with actors dressing up and chasing after guests. This isn't a connection I have made, as people have accused me of: it's Thorpe Park's doing.

An open letter penned by organisations Mind, Rethink, The Lancet Psychiatry journal and the Royal College of Psychiatry makes the point that this ride perpetuates the myth that mental health patients are dangerous -  just look at the chainsaw wielding maniac chasing people away from the maze. This kind of misrepresentation and demonisation is why people with mental health conditions are five times more likely to be assaulted than those who don't. Big companies like Thorpe Park, Asda and Tesco have a responsibility not to fuel misconceptions and make profit out of the most vulnerable in society. 

Yesterday, The Sun newspaper printed a correction to its offensive front page headline “1,200 killed by mental patients” following public outrage. This correction is a big step for mental health campaigners. Public perception is changing, slowly - my petition has collected over 4500 signatures and is still going - but Thorpe Park’s Asylum is a step backwards in defeating stigma, and needs to go.

Katie Sutton is a student nurse at the University of Salford. You can sign the Change.org petition here.