November 27, 2013

Sarah Hall"The nut house is over there," or "there’s the loony bin” are just some of the phrases we hear from people passing by Maudsley Hospital, part of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM).

Those comments come from a lack of knowledge, a fear of the unknown and an ignorance that has unfortunately become norm in our society. I always think if they came inside and saw the invaluable work that goes on they would feel differently but of course people who are not exposed to mental illness don’t get to see the realities of dealing with it.

Until now. Bedlam has enabled us to open our doors to the public, to show them what we really do. It has allowed people a glimpse of the complex world of mental illness, one they may never have had the opportunity to see before.

Our primary objective was to improve understanding of mental illness

When we agreed to make the series that was our primary objective - to improve understanding of mental illness.

When we embarked on discussions with The Garden producers we knew there was so much to be gained from this series but also so many potential pitfalls. How could we make this in a sensitive, destigmatising way? Would the series just reinforce stereotypes? Would we be accused of exploiting our patients?

That was why it was so important to choose the right people to work with to ensure those sensitivities were understood. It was imperative we protected vulnerable people and not reinforce stigma in any way.

Bedlam was the product of two years of hard work

Bedlam was the product of two years of hard work, discussions and negotiations. It was exciting, surreal and a little bit scary when the first camera was let in to our triage unit at Lambeth Hospital – the first area to be filmed. We were in constant dialogue with everyone involved and we nervously awaited backlash from staff, from patients. It never happened. Of course some staff needed convincing; some leapt at the chance. Many patients seemed far happier than expected to be filmed. There were the obligatory voices of dissent but most staff put their fears aside to look at the bigger picture – we needed to change the public’s perception of mental illness once and for all.

It was a major risk for us to take part but we felt the time was right. Dealing with communications for a renowned mental health trust means we do get an insight into people’s behaviour and perceptions to a certain extent. It is almost impossible to quantify but it seems attitudes are very very slowly shifting – you only need to look at the enthusiastic conversations erupting on twitter throughout the series and the feedback we have received so far.

We never expected this level of meaningful debate about mental health

We could never have expected the level of meaningful debate between so many different individuals even a few years ago. Who would have thought #Bedlam would beat the likes of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus to become the most talked about subject (to trend) on Twitter during every episode? More important than anything else, Bedlam generated debate. Mental health found the platform it has deserved for so long. We struggled to keep up with the thousands of comments, discussions and opinions on Twitter and are still analysing it all. Overall I would say the response is 95% positive which is far higher than we ever dared to imagine.

All four programmes were, at times, uncomfortable and distressing, but also insightful, inspiring and educational. An underlying theme in the conversations developing on Twitter was that people no longer felt alone, that treatment and recovery were possible in the right setting. The films showed that your tax band or the type of car you drive do not matter when it comes to mental illness- nobody is exempt.

I look forward to hearing very different conversations when people pass the Maudsley Hospital

And the media response has also been encouraging. The deep seated ignorance of mentally ill people in the popular press seemed to have been challenged by Bedlam. We hope this continues.

All praise goes to the producers for the sensitive, professional and respectful way the films were made and how they built genuine relationships with patients. The proved to us the risk was worth taking and we would do it again without question.

So, I shall now look forward to overhearing very different conversations when people pass the Maudsley Hospital. I am not expecting perceptions to change overnight but I hope Bedlam has gone some way to altering mind sets and putting mental health very firmly in people’s minds.

Sarah Hall is Communications and Media Manager at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM). Follow Slam on Twitter @maudsleyNHS and follow the conversation at #Bedlam

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I fink it is very. good to talk about it


I had my doubts about the ethics of filming people who were so ill they were sectioned under the Mental Health Act. But I thought the whole series was beautifully handled. It was quite brilliant.

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