November 14, 2013

HumaChannel 4 launched its documentary series Bedlam recently to share the stories of people who experience significant mental health problems. I watched with interest, as someone who both experiences a number of the issues outlined and who accesses services from the South London and Maudsley. Often our stories are sensationalised with headlines, such as recently by the Sun newspaper , so an opportunity to hear the reality of our daily struggles is something I welcome.

This programme cannot be reviewed without discussing the title, "Bedlam". Channel 4 explained the use of the title on their website.

A conscious decision was made to use a provocative name

To attract more viewers a conscious decision was made to use a deliberately provocative name. This is the problematic nature of using mental illness in an entertainment form, which is essentially what prime-time television is. There has understandably been much concern amongst people who experience mental health problems, including myself, on whether this will result in increasing the stigma.

However, despite this issue, about which I remain deeply uncomfortable, the programme does much to lay bare the everyday experiences of people who experience mental anguish.

The opening episode explored the experiences of people with deep anxiety which leads to obsessive thoughts and, if left unchecked, compulsive behaviour. Kate in this episode has a deep anxiety that she will harm someone and James has a concern that he will defecate in public. Viewers witness their on-going struggle to function despite intrusive and obsessive thoughts.

It depicts how debilitating intrusive thoughts can be

To people who do not experience mental health problems, it depicts how debilitating the daily experience of having intrusive thoughts can be. Of late, my own intrusive thoughts have been overwhelming. I have found that the more intense therapy I undertake – I am currently undergoing group therapy which doesn’t allow you to control what is being discussed, so I feel constantly triggered – the more it stirs long suppressed emotions.

I experience repeated, painful, negative thoughts which manifest themselves in the form of an extremely critical voice. This occurs at any point when I am not talking to people or otherwise intellectually stimulated. On a bad day, it happens from the moment I wake up to the moment I can sleep. It is difficult to explain the struggle to live a life and not succumb to painful, deafening, negative thoughts.

This is a mere snapshot of what I face. So having experienced this intensity of mental health problems, like those people who feature in the documentary, I find the stigma unpalatable.

I have a number of grave concerns about filming this

I was invited by Time to Change to the launch of the documentary series at Channel 4 studios and I specifically asked the documentary maker, Dave Nath, about the issue of raising awareness of the experiences of people with mental health problems whilst at the same time creating art that entertains.

The episode that was shown at the launch, which has not yet been aired on Channel 4, shows a person whose mental health is deteriorating and is unable to engage with the community mental health services available and, as a result, is eventually sectioned.

I had, and continue to have, a number of grave concerns about filming this. Firstly, having your liberty taken away by the state has to be one of the single most significant events that can take place in a person’s life: you are vulnerable, distressed and deemed unfit to care for yourself. To put this in the public domain must be done in full consideration of the impact it will have on the person’s life - both at that point and in the future. Once shown, these things cannot be withdrawn.

The use of music in Bedlam

My second point, and one I would make more generally about Bedlam, is the use of music throughout the documentary. This is a clear example of a disjoint between making a programme for prime-time entertainment and raising awareness and tackling stigma. There is nothing sexy about the minutiae of pain and mental distress. If I was to note down the painful and obsessive negative thoughts I have on a daily and often hourly basis, I can confidently say that it would not be a form of entertainment prime time viewers would want to be exposed to. How does an artistic director get around this? He uses musical accompaniments.

I specifically asked Dave Nath about the issue of consent, both in terms of what was shown, i.e. the act of being sectioned, as well as how it was shown, i.e. the use of dramatic music in the background. He explained the use of consent in detail: the individual recovered from that acute episode and was able to give her consent for it being shown.

I urge caution with film makers who seek to make these programmes entertaining

In response to being asked about the use of music as a backdrop, his answer was telling: “I am an artistic director; I wouldn’t ask those questions of anyone I filmed”. That is the difference between illuminating the experience of extremely vulnerable people and the use these stories as a form of entertainment. To my mind, this illustrates that there is an inevitable conflict between the two.

I do not doubt that drawing attention to the everyday struggles of people with mental health problems can help combat some of the very negative messages, e.g. the Asda ‘mental patient’ costume debacle, that are in the public domain. But I also know the ramifications of getting this wrong.

So whilst I welcome the opportunity for the wider public to get an insight into our experiences, I urge caution with film makers who seek to make these programmes entertaining. Our lives are filled with painful struggles, do not forget this when trying to attract those viewers.

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