It Asda be…..a PR Disaster!

It has been a while since I have written about a subject closely related to the reason I started this blog in the first place. As you may recall, I was encouraged to share my experiences of depression in the hope that these would help others suffering from the same or a related illness. I am not in any way qualified as a clinician, but worked for more than twenty years for a large NHS Trust which provides mental health services and have often had informal contact with patients. Whilst I have tried to widen the scope of this blog I haven’t lost sight of its raison d’etre: mental health will always be a concern and an interest for me, and I will return to it now and then. As I am doing today.

The reason for this is the furore that arose both on Twitter and in the real world over the sale by Asda of a Halloween costume described as a ‘mental patient.’ In case you haven’t seen the offending article, here’s a shot taken before Asda withdrew it from sale (click to enlarge this and all images):

AsdaStrangely enough, in all my years of working in sites where mental health patients go, I’ve never seen one looking remotely like this. I first came upon this in the early hours of this morning after I’d woken, couldn’t get back to sleep, and thought I’d take a quick look at Twitter as I hadn’t been there for a while. I retweeted several comments about this, including two from a long term Twitter friend who, despite her own experience of mental health problems, saw this as something she had a right to see as an irrelevance. I don’t dispute that right, but I too have a right to a differing opinion, as do all of the other people who took to the airwaves and forced Asda to withdraw the product from sale. I blogged about sensitivities on mental health issues many months ago, and would be the first to accept that I may have become over-sensitised to where the dividing line between humour and abuse is drawn in this context, following my own experience of depression. Yes of course, my now ex-friend was right: we can choose to decide how we respond to things, and we will have different sensitivity levels in coming to those decisions. But is this particular episode simply a question of the moralists among us – like me! – choosing to be offended by what was intended to be humorous? I think not, and that is why I believe she was so very wrong to use the usual trite phrase ‘Man up’ in her comment that taking offence might be a form of mental illness in itself.

Asda aren’t alone in offering something like this for sale. Earlier today you could still buy this from Tesco:

TescoAnd there are some online fancy dress specialists joining in the ‘fun’ too. Take a look at this:

iPad pics 011Or this:

iPad pics 016Get the idea?

Consider for a moment what Halloween actually is. It dates back centuries, and ‘experts’ disagree as to whether it is of Christian or Pagan origin. Either way, I don’t think the origins really matter now.To my mind it is a blatantly commercialised, manufactured event to increase the profits of companies who are showing that they don’t really care about hurting people, or about playing on the stigma that mental health suffers. I can’t see this as a case of moral outrage by the self-righteous, sorry. Asda and Tesco pride themselves on being places where all the family can go to shop, yet they don’t seem to understand that this kind of ‘joke’ may be so very damaging. What if it was your child who was on the point of saying that they thought they might have a problem, but was then dissuaded from doing so because it’s just something to laugh about – or worse, a reason to be laughed at? One in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem in our lifetime, and I know from experience that it is incredibly hard to realise this in the first place, and then to seek help. This is the 21st century and by now we should really be able to talk about mental health without feeling ashamed to do so. Asda and Tesco are both huge companies with a major influence on our daily lives. That they are pandering to stereotypical images of people with a damaging illness is, in my view, shameful.

In the interest of fairness I should point out that Asda did bow to public pressure and remove the costume from sale, and apologised for it. But their apology was, as far as I can tell, only made on Twitter. I’ve looked at their website today and can find no mention of the affair. If they seriously meant their apology to be taken as sincere – and not just a regret that they were going to lose some profits – I would have liked to have seen it in a prominent place, such as their website’s home page and maybe in the Halloween costumes section too. Until then, I and many others will remain cynical – or, as I prefer to see it, realistic. In making their apology they promised to make a substantial donation to Mind, the mental health charity. To me this shows that they haven’t really learned much from this episode: Mind is of course a large and influential campaigner for, and provider of, mental health services. But it is far from being alone in this – there are many other independent and charitable organisations working in this field, necessarily so to make up for continuing state underfunding of mental healthcare. Do they seriously think that by choosing one organisation as the recipient of their blood money they are making everything better? Unfortunately, I believe they do, and this just underlines how much more education this country needs before mental health issues are understood and are free from stigma and abuse. Asda proudly pats itself on the back for its support of two breast cancer charities, so why not use its money to do something meaningful, instead of just making a token PR gesture? A long term commitment by one of the country’s major retailers would be an enormous boost. It’s World Mental Health Day on 10th October, which would seem to be an ideal opportunity.

So, come on Asda, how about it?