#MentalPatient – where it all started and what it all means

#MentalPatient – where it all started and what it all means

Where it all started

When I sneaked a peak at my emails (ironically in the middle of a Time to Change Leeds steering group meeting) and clicked on an Asda link from one of our consultant psychiatrists, @nuwandiss, my heart started palpitating. I couldn’t believe the image in front of me. Surely this Halloween costume was a wind up? But the URL was legit. I shared it with colleagues around the table. We all gasped.

My first thought was that it had to come down quickly – it was going to upset and offend so many people. Asda’s headquarters are in Leeds and Dom, Head of Social, has been fantastic in supporting myself and my comms team in our use of social media. He’s even blogged about mental health taboos himself – you can read it here.  So I sent him a DM. Dom got it straight away and put things in motion to get it taken down. Unfortunately for Asda the web page remained up.

Going viral

Later that morning our chief executive (who also received the email) tweeted Asda with the link, and a response came quickly: ‘Thanks for your feedback. We agree. Our George colleagues had already picked up on this and are taking action. #timetochange’. There was no further interaction until the ChrisButlernhs tweet was re-tweeted by MrsGracePoole in the evening and at this point the topic went rapidly viral over the next 24 hours, resulting in prime time national TV and radio coverage plus print media the next day.

A review using the analytics engine Topsy shows that during the twenty four hour period from 12am on 26 September there were 22,371 tweets mentioning the word Asda, compared to 3,779 in the twenty four hour period before. The mental health blogsphere went into overdrive and the platform Storify was used to curate tweets around various themes related to the activity as it unfolded.


The Twitter protest at Asda morphed for some into a #mentalpatient hashtag where people with lived experience of mental health problems tweeted pictures of themselves being, well ordinary – a fabulous contrast to that macabre costume on the Asda website. This hashtag was used 6,694 times during the same twenty four hour period compared to zero use in the preceding two days. Asda eventually removed the costume from sale later that evening and this was followed by Tesco who were stocking a similar item.

The use of humour to satirise Asda’s blunder was extensive on Twitter. The most re-tweeted tweet came from the comedian Jack Dee, who wrote: ‘Just bought my Halloween costume. Going as Managing Director of Asda’ which had been shared 810 times at 12pm on 27 September. @Sectioned_ tweeted a link to the offending web page with the tweet: ‘Dear Asda, can you deliver this in time for my psychiatrist appointment on Friday? #chosenbyyou.’ The national mental health charities, Mind and Rethink, were key influencers on Twitter during this period. Print and online media reports relied extensively on Twitter to provide content for the story as it ran over the twenty four hour period.

The power of collective social action

This flash of activity by people with lived experience of mental health problems and campaigners illustrates the spread and reach afforded by social media platforms, enabling disparate people to connect around a topic, amplify an issue, collectively influence a major retailer, and get an issue across all major media channels incredibly rapidly. The ability to talk back to institutions both individually and collectively forced a major retailer to apologise and got the topic of mental health stigma in the national news within a short sharp period of time.

I felt for Dom, and the many other Asda employees who no doubt have positive attitudes towards mental health, and of course many of whom will have lived experience themselves. But I’m glad this debate happened because it showed the power and influence that thousands of individual voices can exert to effect change. I hope it shows that attitudes are shifting  – Twitter spoke and (by and large) said it wasn’t happy and it got action!

What next in Leeds?

We have a fantastic Time to Change campaign in Leeds which you can find on Twitter @changeleeds and a thriving Mindful Employer network. Asda is a major employer and has thousands of customers in our city. I hope we can collaborate to have a positive influence on our ambition to be a Time to Change city.

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