UPDATE – email to Nick Varney, CEO Merlin Entertainment
It’s never my habit to go “straight to the top” – I believe in taking comments and complaints up through the chain of command.
But having been either ignored or fobbed off by @THORPEPARK on Twitter, Thorpe Park Guest Services and the Thorpe Park press liaison team, I’m coming to you. Below what I sent the press team earlier today – I’m pretty sure it’s something you’d like to know about, given its potential impact on the Thorpe Park brand. It also links to what I sent to Guest Services, and their inadequate reply.
It’s impossible by this stage not to make comparisons with Tesco and Asda, and Thorpe Park/Merlin are giving the impression that, unlike those other major companies, they don’t like to listen. They are giving the impression that they refuse to consider that they might be out of step on this issue and that they do not care about the needs and opinions of the stigmatised yet sizeable minority that is the 1:4 people (and that’s a LOT of potential customers) with a mental health problem.. And above all, your companies give the impression that they could not care less when people raise legitimate concerns, to the extent that the @THORPEPARK Twitter feed is simply pretending that no negative tweets are coming their way.
I reiterate my question to Guest Services: is this kind of company that Thorpe Park, and its parent company Merlin, aspire to be?
Dear Thorpe Park press team,
Perhaps you saw that Asda and Tesco recently made headlines for all the wrong reasons after people with personal experience of mental health conditions, along with their carers, supporters and clinicians, strenuously objected to the sale of “mental patient” costumes. These costumes depicted “patients” as scary and frightening. This is utterly inappropriate in 2013 when there is ample evidence that far from being violent, people with a history of mental distress are more likely to be victims of violence. Any reference to “patients” being dangerous or frightening feeds into a myth that leads to people with mental health problems being shunned and stigmatised. As a community we refused to accept that money should be made out of furthering that stereotype and after the issue moved from online to mainstream media Tesco and Asda accepted we were right.
Imagine my horror then when I found out about Thorpe Park’s “Asylum” Fright Night. I discovered the issue via Twitter, where many other people were expressing dismay at the concept. Large numbers of us tweeted @THORPEPARK but all received the same cut/paste platitude along the lines that the Asylum is just meant to be “scary fun”, not a realistic inpatient unit (ah, yes, we had worked that one out) and that they were sorry “if any offence had been caused.” This message continued to be pasted every time someone tweeted their unhappiness with the Asylum until eventually your Twitter person gave up and began ignoring any negative tweets.
This was not good enough.
I wrote to guest services explaining logically and courteously why the Asylum is so damaging for the mental health community, and why it should have no place in 2013. The inadequate response I received (which you can read here on my blog) pretty much relied on the “it’s a bit of fun, we’ve always done it and no one’s complained before” line, which as I point out in my reply is what people said carrying on with the Black and White Minstrel Show. Just because it’s traditional, doesn’t make it right.
And anyway, here’s the thing. Maybe no one has complained before, but that’s irrelevant because they are complaining NOW and they are doing it loudly via social media. Rethink Mental Illness, one of the country’s largest and most active mental health charities, started a Twitter hashtag poll asking people to vote AsylumYES (funnily enough this one didn’t attract much interest) or #AsylumNO. I suggest you take a look at #AsylumNO however as there are more participants than I could count to give you an idea of the scale, let alone individual tweets. This roundup by mental health blogger @Sectioned_ collates tweets, the hashtag, @THORPEPARK’s inadequate response, and eight blogs at the time of writing (not including my own) on why the Asylum concept is offensive and damaging.
In my view, the first and the most important is that Thorpe Park and Merlin stop saying they are sorry “if offence has been caused” and accept that it’s not a question of people being offended – it’s a question of placing us at risk by falsely linking dangerousness and mental health in the public’s minds. That’s not about being offended, it’s about an already stigmatised and vulnerable group being made more so, just so that you can offer guests a bit of “scary fun” and make yourselves a little more money. Distasteful in the extreme, and it is hard to think of any other minority group you would even begin to think it was OK to depict as horror baddies. If Tesco and Asda can own up to getting it wrong and failing to move with the times, surely Thorpe Park/Merlin can do the same. The large donations those companies made to mental health charities were also very welcome.
I understand it is probably too late to simply pull the Asylum, but you have plenty of time to decide and announce that it’s no longer appropriate, and that next year you will be offering something different. Apologising for the inadequate responses of the @THORPEPARK Twitter feed and that no one from Merlin has even acknowledged the #AsylumNO hashtag is clearly essential. Donating the money made from The Asylum to Time to Change, the joint Mind and Rethink funded charity whose brief is to combat stigma against mental health problems, would also be extremely welcome.
This whole event also suggests that Merlin and Thorpe Park need company-wide training in mental health. Mind run a range of high-quality in-house training courses covering everything from basic mental health awareness through to creating a mentally healthy workplace http://www.mind.org.uk/training. An announcement that Thorpe Park intends to sign up with Mind to improve staff understanding in this area would again be very welcome.
You have got something very wrong. We are giving you simple ways you can put things right and we expect to hear from you very shortly that you recognise the need for change and accept the damage you do by running this event.