October 9, 2013

EmmaTime to change host a series of events for media professionals that focus on best practice, encourage debate and support the attendees to feel confident in writing or reporting about mental health sensitively and accurately.

Here, Emma blogs about her experience volunteering at the latest event: Meet the Media event: Entertainment & Reality TV

As it was my first event as a media volunteer for Time to Change, I had no idea what to expect from their Meet the Media series. The debate held at Channel 4 centred on the participation of people with experience of mental health problems in entertainment or reality TV. I was intrigued about what direction the debate would take and a little dubious about how the subject would be received. However, throughout the evening I was positively surprised by how engaged the audience and panel were.

I was nervous to talk about my own experiences, mainly because I worry it makes people feel awkward but I believe in openness and honesty about mental health to break down the stigma. My mum had bipolar and tragically completed suicide earlier this year. One of the things that struck me was the media coverage surrounding her death and the reporting of her mental health. The media frequently refused to use the word bipolar when describing my mum and instead opted for depression as they claimed "people don't know enough about bipolar but people can understand depression," so I was curious to see the perspectives from the media audience.

I had the chance to speak to a few producers before the debate began and the general consensus was that you can’t admit if you have a mental health problem in this industry for fear of being judged and not getting work. I wasn’t surprised to hear this but it made me a little angry that it’s so widespread that it’s the norm to be forced to hide certain aspects of who you are. Later on I reflected that I too would probably hide it from prospective employers for fear of the repercussions, so I think this sadly spreads much further than just this industry

Our host Anna Williamson was bravely honest about her experiences

Our host Anna Williamson was bravely honest about her experiences and gained a lot of respect from the audience and especially me. It’s incredibly important to be open and honest, but I know all too well how hard it can be to stand in front of people and talk so candidly. I was impressed to hear that ITV were very supportive to Anna during her most difficult time.

First to talk about her experience was former Big Brother contestant Nikki Grahame. She initially disclosed her mental health problems in her audition and didn’t get through. So when she auditioned the second time she didn’t disclose them. Justin Gorman (Head of entertainment at Channel 4) responded to this revelation with: "There is no reason why people from all backgrounds shouldn't be on TV as we should represent the country as a whole; however we have a duty of care".

Throughout the debate there was lots of interaction on the twitter hashtag – it was definitely a big debate on social media with not everyone agreeing with the concept of the discussion.

The overriding thought with X Factor’s controversial new twist was although it was unnecessarily cruel; unfortunately people didn't turn it off. This means it becomes part of the show as viewing figures remain high. Shirlena Johnson (former contestant) said being kicked off the X Factor because of her mental health problems was "terrible". She quite rightly believes she should have been the one to make that decision, not producers. One of the questions posed was who should make the decision regarding featuring people with mental health problems? It seems to me that everyone should be allowed to make their own choices, as long as producers act responsibly and with care.

"The issue is around exploitation, we wouldn't discriminate but safety is key" said Jim Sayer, from Maverick TV. "We take our duty of care very seriously".

It is important to show the wide spectrum of mental health

It is important to show the wide spectrum of mental health as 1 in 4 of us is affected by mental health problems. Elliot Reed from BBC3 says the mental health season on the channel "benefitted everyone involved - paving the way forward".

Overall it felt positive for people in the industry to come together and openly engage and discuss such an important topic. I was encouraged that people were keen to learn more and share their thoughts on best practises. It was also great to have people on the panel with real experiences and so willing to be truthful about what they have been through.

There is clearly a need for this type of event and the more we discuss it and seek to understand – the better. I came away feeling really positive. After the debate I spoke to one producer who said:

"Surely the key thing is to be a decent human being and make sure everyone on TV gets looked after properly, whether you have a mental health problem or not."

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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