Asda inspires the mental health campaign of the year

The explosive power of reactive campaigning online was again shown yesterday, when Asda accidentally inspired the best mental health campaign of the year.
When neuroscientist and Guardian blogger Dean Burnett woke up on Wednesday, he probably wasn’t planning to spark a national campaign against two of our supermarket giants. But just after 9pm that evening, he did just that. Dean came across Asda’s ‘Mental Patient Fancy Dress Costume’ on their website and tweeted the supermarket asking for clarification on the type of mental disorder they were attempting to parody. Ricky Gervais re-tweeted, and so it went viral.

Asda has apologised for its ‘error’ profusely and made a ‘sizeable donation’ to Mind. But is Asda’s indiscretion the real issue? The sad fact is that someone, somewhere, decided that a wild-eyed man wearing a shredded, blood-spattered straightjacket and wielding a meat cleaver could be best described as a ‘mental patient’. Of course, this confirms what we already know: mental health still isn’t understood in the way physical health is (yes, we’ve searched Asda’s site for a cancer patient costume – there isn’t one).

1 in 4 of us will suffer a mental health illness in our lifetime.

So why won’t we talk about it? We work with both Oxleas NHS Trust and the Anna Freud Centre who, alongside many other organisations, work hard to help people understand and talk openly about mental health. But even with the likes of Stephen Fry, Alistair Campbell and Ruby Wax stepping up to talk about about their own problems, the subject remains a taboo in many contexts. What will it take to shake the stigma around the mental health patient?

No one imagined it would be a supermarket Halloween outfit.

Responding to the ‘Mental Patient Costume’, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, the charities behind the Time to Change campaign, combined forces and asked their followers to tweet photos of themselves, the real mental patients. Suddenly, people all over the UK were putting their ‘selfies’ to good use by sharing their status alongside their photo. One by one, thousands of people joined the chorus.

The storm is already dying down. Asda and Tesco have removed the offending Halloween costumes from their site, #mentalpatient is no longer trending.

But brand managers and supermarket product purchasers will have taken note. And many of those who took that simple action yesterday, or saw others taking it, will feel that another barrier to talking honestly about mental health has been swept away.

*We’ve updated this blog post to reflect the fact that Rethink Mental Illness are behind this campaign.