January 14, 2013

Rae Earl and cast of E4's My Big Fat Mad Diary | Time to ChangeI’m chilling out on the sofa, making the most of the last few days of the Christmas holiday by playing rubbish games on my phone, when I hear “My name is Rae. It’s 1996, I’m 16, 16 stone, and desperate for a shag. Oh yeah, and I’ve been in a mental hospital for a while”.

My head shoots up to look at the TV screen. This isn’t a sentence I expected to hear on an average E4 comedy-filled evening. I see a girl, wide-eyed, in a dressing gown, looking round the “mad house” (her words, not mine). It’s an advert for a new show “My Mad Fat Diary”, which concludes with the line “Diary, if anyone ever finds you and thinks I’m crazy, well, they just might be right”. Ugh. My immediate reaction is disgust and anger. ‘Yet another ill-informed programme mocking mental illness; when will the stigma end?’ I think to myself. And then I watched it, and to my surprise, I absolutely loved it.

The programme is based on the real-life diary of a 16 year old teenager leaving a psychiatric ward. That makes it hard to critique, because you can’t dispute someone’s own experience. Without reading the book itself, it’s hard to know how true to the story the programme has stuck to but I was really pleasantly surprised with how the topic was handled. It was sweet, engaging and, most of all, funny.

It’s refreshing to see mental illness explored in a comedy context

It’s refreshing to see mental illness explored in a comedy context, which doesn’t target or mock the individual but encourages you to live her story with her and laugh with her too. There are no jokes about her mental health, just laugh along lines about her sexual urges, lust for boys and her quirky turns of phrase. You don’t have to be interested in mental health to watch it, it’s simply another amusing teenage comedy.

It’s beautifully visual, creative, light-hearted and inviting but with some serious messages that are cutting, deep, and sad. It strikes the perfect balance that makes it fun to watch but still encourages you to feel and think about mental health stigma and what life is like for a young person experiencing mental illness. And, importantly, not in a finger-pointing or accusatory way. It doesn’t shy away from issues of self harm and disordered eating but deals with them in a sensitive and (mostly) non-triggering way for viewers.

Rae, is such a sweet, funny and loveable girl

The main character, Rae, is such a sweet, funny and loveable girl. You are immediately ‘on her side’ and almost feel protective over her. It shows how much more she is than her mental health problem. She has so many wonderful traits and being mentally ill is just one part of her.

It doesn’t label or categorize- no diagnosis has been mentioned so far. We see her symptoms, most of which we can relate to on some level. You don’t have to have a mental health problem to feel self-conscious, worried about your weight, or nervous around new people. It’s simply a programme about a girl struggling to find her way in the world like every teenager, mental illness or no mental illness.

Don’t most teenagers just want to fit in?

Yet Rae has such a preoccupation with being ‘normal’. She seems to equate normal to being without a mental health problem. At first I wasn’t sure about this theme but, then again, don’t most teenagers just want to fit in? The stigma surrounding mental illness makes it feel like you are different from the rest of the world and you forget how common the experience is. The most prominent stigma that Rae faces appears to be from herself. She hasn’t told anyone where she’s been for the past 4 months, for fear of being judged and shunned. She’s hiding behind this mask and desperately trying not to let it slip. This is certainly how I felt when I was in my teens.

The programme depicts beautifully the paradox of longing to be out of the mental health system and back to ‘normality’, but also how scary and cruel the world can be, especially for a teenager. The comfort of being ‘locked away’ is alluring and that makes it harder to feel like you’re recovering. You are constantly torn between wanting to be ‘out’ when you feel cooped up, and wanting to be ‘in’ when the world seems too much. Being in the mental health system often feels like a struggle for power, as seen in the relationship between Rae and her therapist. It also touches on institutional stigma and discrimination, when the therapist says to Rae, “You’ve got a mental illness. Who are they going to believe, you or me?”

The advertising does not reflect the feel of the programme

So I would urge you to watch it and not to judge it on the 1 minute advert like I initially did. The advertising does not reflect the feel of the programme. Part of me is sad that it is so misrepresentative and that they must promote a programme about mental illness in this way to get people to watch it. But then I think about the audience that it could capture. I accept that sometimes you must play to people’s prejudices to draw them in and challenge those views. It’s early days for the programme, but contrary to my cynical ways, I’m staying optimistic...

My Big Fat Mad Diary trailer

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Image source: http://www.e4.com/

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