'Bedlam', a Channel 4 series about mental illness made at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM), won a BAFTA television award last month.
Sarah Hall, Communications and Media Manager at SLaM, talks about why this may have helped to make a difference to people living with a mental illness.
When we first discussed the idea of making an observational documentary series about mental health, many people asked why we wanted to take part. We hoped that 'Bedlam' would raise awareness, draw attention to the realities of living with a mental illness and help to remove the stigma around mental health conditions, but nobody could have ever predicted the outcome. When we stood on stage receiving our BAFTA it struck me what a difference 'Bedlam' really has made.
A few years ago 'Bedlam' probably wouldn't have been made in the first place
For the first time a series about mental illness triumphed over mainstream populist documentaries to win a major award. A few years ago it is unlikely that four programmes about mental health which, at times, were quite distressing, raw and incredibly sad – as well as being inspirational, compassionate and honest - would have been nominated for a BAFTA, let alone win one. It probably wouldn’t have been made in the first place.
So what has changed? As Dave Nath (series director of 'Bedlam') said on stage when we received the award-staff and patients taking part was a ‘massive leap of faith’ and the success of the series was testament to the bravery of the contributors.
He is absolutely right. Without that group of inspiring, bold, honest individuals we couldn’t have made 'Bedlam'. By speaking out those people didn’t want publicity for themselves; they all said they wanted to take part to raise awareness and help others. And that is what has happened.
With concerted effort, it is possible to promote better public awareness of mental illness
It really does feel like it is finally time for mental health. For too long it has had a back seat in healthcare; for too long patients who are mentally ill have been marginalised and had to deal with stigma, ignorance and even abuse. Much of that ignorance derives from the unknown, SLaM opening its doors to the public through 'Bedlam' has enabled people to glimpse a world they thought they knew nothing about. What they saw – and what SLaM staff see every day – is ordinary people who struggle with their mental health. In the same way you can’t help it if you break your leg, you also can’t help it if you develop a mental illness.
The language used in modern media has an incredibly powerful role in fuelling stigma and prejudice; if not approached in the right way a television series could undo years of progressive work. It was crucial that everything went at the pace of the contributors, that meticulous planning was underway from the start and the consent process was flexible enough to accommodate patient needs. With concerted effort, time and resources it is possible to promote better public awareness of mental illness.
'Bedlam' showed that people with mental illness are just like everyone else
During 'Bedlam' I noticed a sea change in how people were responding to the programmes; they were using social media to express their opinions and to share experiences.
Social media comes in for a lot of criticism but, in my opinion and in relation to mental illness, it has helped patients to find an outlet - a forum where they can remain anonymous but still feel part of a group of people with similar experiences. And during 'Bedlam' those people had a real platform, a collective voice enabling them to finally express themselves. And people were listening to them. 'Bedlam' showed that people with mental illness are just like everyone else; they laugh, cry, talk, shout, eat and behave like the rest of us.
'Bedlam' has catapulted us further along the road to tackling deep-seated discrimination
There are many examples of change since 'Bedlam' – and of course we still have a long way to go – but there is one that particularly stands out in my mind: a man who was walking past the Maudsley Hospital saw a man in clear mental anguish. He told us that before he saw 'Bedlam' he would have walked straight past him but this time he came into the hospital and informed somebody of the man’s distress.
This is a really positive indication that 'Bedlam' represents a landmark documentary for the 21st century and one which has catapulted us further along the road to tackling deep-seated discrimination.