Skip to main content

Learnings from a Twitter storm

9 October 2013

Asda’s ‘Mental Patient’ fancy dress costume controversy started as a flurry of tweets and morphed into a spirited fightback against the damaging impact of mental health stigma.

It showed that charity campaigns are no longer just dreamed up in meeting rooms and pushed out to the waiting general public. They can just happen, brought into existence by the audiences themselves in an amazingly exciting way.

As a charity, we're used to reacting quickly to emerging events. This often means connecting people with information and support online; we've also done things like live tweeting during potentially controversial mental health programmes. Then there are days when news of Asda’s stunningly insensitive Halloween outfit – comprising a torn, blood stained shirt, plastic meat cleaver and gory facemask labelled as a ‘Mental Patient Fancy Dress Costume’– hit the national headlines.

On the evening of 25 September we were preparing to release a report about the fact that thousands of people with mental illness are dying needlessly every year. It was called #LethalDiscrimination because of the way the issue is being overlooked – little did we know that mental health discrimination was going to dominate the news agenda in quite the way it did. After 10pm, our associate director of campaigns alerted me to the fact that a Halloween costume was being discussed on Twitter. “Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume,” went the product description.

I was at the train station on my way home, hurriedly loading up the Asda webpage and tweeting as I went. One way of dealing with a breaking situation like this would be not to say anything until various colleagues are consulted. I suspect what stops some charities from engaging fully with social media is a fear of saying the wrong thing – an attitude that might suggest our role is primarily to lead supporters by taking careful steps forward.

Responding to our Twitter followers, I asked them to bear with us while we absorbed the news and asked Asda what was going on. Any fear of ‘saying the wrong thing' was not applicable – our supporters wanted to know what was going on too.

We at Rethink Mental Illness, our mental health charity ally Mind and the Time to Change campaign we run together – all released statements and provided interviews to the press.

There were people who identified the anti-ASDA outcry as ‘political correctness gone mad'. This was quickly refuted by the spontaneous emergence of a #mentalpatient hashtag, which saw people with mental health issues sharing everyday pictures of themselves to make the point that ‘mental patients’ are, as Rethink Mental Illness chief executive Paul Jenkins said, “not a strange group of other people locked away at the fringe of society.”

Both Rethink Mental Illness and Mind retweeted the photos throughout the day – stigma confronted and confounded by the creativity of individuals. The consequences of stigma are nothing to dismiss: as Paul said, “the sense that others may fear you can be the last straw.”

We hoped to boost the grassroots campaign and inspire confidence with a #mentalpatient snap of our casually-dressed colleague Lizzie ‘photoshopped’ into the original ASDA product page. The Facebook post was our most successful ever, reaching 150,000 people and motivating yet more people to join in the #mentalpatient fun – and it was fun!

As the dust settled on Friday, we received an email from a creative agency referring to the previous day’s events, seemingly hoping to secure business from us. They talked about how they could help “educate our audience”, which struck me as an increasingly archaic attitude – especially in these circumstances. What we at Rethink Mental Illness are doing on social media is holding a conversation. We’re chatting with some of the most highly-qualified people in the whole of the mental health world – our ‘experts by experience’. Increasingly we’re finding that our role is to simply empower them and amplify their voices. What the Asda protest should demonstrate to any organisation – charity or otherwise – is just how inspiring and influential your audience can be.

Chris Cox

senior communications & marketing manager, freelance

Chris has been an influential public and third sector communications professional for over ten years, overseeing the fast-growing digital and social media marcomms around mental health at Mind, Time to Change and Rethink Mental Illness. He's also led digital comms and marketing at Tommy's and NSPCC – and undertaken senior roles managing wider comms including media and PR in the private sector. Chris is a proud trustee of The Choir With No Name, which run choirs for people who've experienced homelessness and others on the margins.