Mental health stigma backlash over Leeds escape game that has 'upset hospital staff and patients'

Dr Sara Munro, chief executive of Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.
Dr Sara Munro, chief executive of Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.
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NHS chiefs and charity bosses have warned that a new escape game based on an "asylum" risks setting mental health stigma back by decades.

The Asylum escape game, based in Leeds, has prompted a backlash from medics and criticism on social media this week over its "disregard" for mental health by having a doctor chase around 'patients' in the fake asylum.

The company behind the game, The Great Escape, say participants can explore "an abandoned asylum" after a doctor has been "abducting trespassers and performing experiments on his victims".

It apologised for any offence caused but insisted the game is based on a film set, rather than a real-life asylum.

However, Dr Sara Munro, chief executive of Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, which provides mental health services in the city, said the game had upset hospital staff and patients.

"We are currently in the process of setting up a meeting with the game organisers to address concerns," she told the YEP.

“The theme of this game has clearly upset a number of our staff and service users.

"We all have a responsibility to challenge anything that could lead to mental health stigma and distress."

The game launched this month inside Atlas House, in King Street.

The backlash over stigma comes as the YEP is calling on people and businesses in Leeds to help combat mental health stigma through our #SpeakYourMind campaign, which has been backed by the Leeds Mind mental health charity, Princes Harry and William and the Prime Minister Theresa May.

Helen Kemp, chief executive of Leeds Mind, warned the positive campaigns and changes in attitude towards mental health over the last 12 months could be damaged by negative stigma.

She said: "I was shocked to see a 'game' advertised as being set in a 'creepy lunatic asylum'.

"This language shows total disregard for people living with mental health difficulties and increases stigma and discrimination.

"We have seen really positive changes in attitude in the last year towards mental health helped by Heads Together and the YEP's #SpeakYourMind campaign so this is particularly disappointing and takes us back many years."

Following complaints and criticism on social media, The Great Escape released an official statement yesterday (Tuesday).

The company said: "There have been many statements made about The Asylum game that we would like to clear up.

"The game itself is set in a fictional abandoned Asylum. It is not a real Asylum contrary to speculation, it is based inside Atlas House office space in Leeds city centre.

"The game does not feature torture and psychiatric illness is not a theme of the game.

"We have not stigmatised psychiatric patients as “scary people” or “helpless”."

The firm said it now understood how wording on its website about the game could be "interpreted negatively", and that the company "believed we had taken appropriate measures before launching the game to ensure that our game would not offend".

The statement said: "These measures were an accumulation of speaking to a focus group of people who have been affected by psychiatric illnesses, discussing with staff members living with psychiatric illness (one of whom is our Director) and we even invited a team of mental health professionals to play the game.

"Their feedback from these sessions was that the game itself doesn’t have any connection to psychiatric illness.

"The game doesn’t stigmatise and the game hasn’t affected those with psychiatric illness who have played it."

The company added: "Whilst initially we thought we had taken all of the appropriate steps to ensure that we wouldn’t cause offence, we completely understand where the feedback on social media has come from. We understand that the storyline and the keywords chose to describe the game were insensitive.

"We have apologised numerous times over the past few days. However, we would like the opportunity to do so again."