November 30, 2016

"Conditions such as schizophrenia are still highly misunderstood and used as ways to explain away bad behaviour."

Mind's Senior Media Advisor Jenni Regan blogs on why Channel 4's 'Life on the Psych Ward did nothing to help challenge negative stereotypes of mental illness. 

I watched the Channel 4 documentary ‘Life on the Psych Ward’ with excitement last night. I am a huge fan of what both the South London and Maudsley NHS and Channel 4 are doing to ‘lift the lid’ on mental health and was really interested in the idea that they were tackling the less appetising side of mental health: the forensic ward.

I salute all the staff and patients that took part, and of course Channel 4, for putting such a controversial subject on mainstream TV. However, I do think this documentary missed out sufficient context which led to many on Twitter calling it a ‘stigmatising show’. The very name ‘Life on the Psych Ward’ although snappy and very Channel 4, was misleading and someone who hadn’t seen the trailer or who hadn’t caught the beginning may have thought that this was just your everyday psychiatric ward rather than a very specialist forensic ward. This further promoted the stereotype that people with mental health problems are dangerous.

I don’t think we should shy away or sugar-coat this area of treatment. After all, of course, people with mental health problems do commit crimes, like anyone in society. However, as the FAQs from the Maudsley even state:

There are lots of reasons someone might commit a violent crime, and factors like drug and alcohol misuse are far more likely to be the cause of violent behaviour.

It didn’t really feel as though this was explained through the film. It felt almost as though all three men had done horrific things simply because of their mental health problems. Other factors were touched upon at the end but to a lay person watching, the message was clear: ’people with mental health problems are a danger to others’.

We know that certain conditions are more stigmatised than others. With the Media Advice Service I run for Mind, we have seen great improvements in how illnesses such as bipolar disorder and depression are portrayed in the media, but unfortunately conditions such as schizophrenia are still highly misunderstood and used in both drama and news as ways to ‘explain away’ bad behaviour.

Amongst some of the fantastic autumn dramas that I got stuck into this year I was horrified to see at least two characters who were the archetypal ‘mad and bad stranger’. Both committed crimes or were arrested solely because of their diagnosis.

It felt in this film as though there was not really any explanation of these illnesses and how they affect most of the people who live with them. I would have loved to have seen some facts about the conditions and some context. It is true that the show wasn’t saying explicitly that all people with mental health problems are dangerous but by not adding any counter voices or contextualising facts, this was the impression that viewers were left with. Again, this from the FAQs would have been great if it had been included:

People living with mental health problems are more likely to become the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime. Most common mental health problems have no significant link to violent behaviour at all.

My very first job in mental health was on a secure unit around twenty years ago. Here we were introduced to patients and then given their case files a few days later. This allowed me to get to know someone a little before my opinion was swayed by finding out about their crime. This approach doesn’t come without problems of course but I think it would have been good to find out a bit more about the men in the programme before their crime or diagnosis.

I don’t think the programme really took into account the effect this portrayal may have on those of us with mental health problems, particularly the conditions in the show such as personality disorders or schizophrenia. Many people with mental illness say that the stigma they face can be as bad as the mental health condition itself. Of course if Channel 4 were to do a fantastic follow-up show next week showing a group of people with the same conditions who were doing brilliant things in their lives, that would be ideal, but we know that often this kind of show wouldn’t have the same ratings.

Still, we will continue to work with the media behind the scenes to ensure that mental health stays in the spotlight. We know that the media can have an incredible part to play in educating people, shaping opinions and encouraging people to seek help. There are some great documentaries out there, including brilliant ‘Fly on the Wall’ films. We also shouldn’t shy away from difficult subjects, we just need to make sure that if these are tackled they are served up with a whole big heap of context!

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.