Rachel Evans was the series producer for 'Peace of Mind' a series that went out on BBC Wales at the end of last year. Here she answers some questions about working on the show.
Did you have any preconceptions about working with contributors with mental health problems?
I had no preconceptions as my father had a severe episode of mental illness 8 years ago and I have a good friend who suffers from depression so I felt I had some first hand experience.
How did you research information about mental health problems?
The usual way; talking to loads and loads of people! The third sector were very helpful in supplying information and contacting service users on our behalf, from the large national charities to the tiny local self help groups. We also read many research papers by clinicians. The best way was to meet people face to face and gain first hand knowledge.
How did you recruit contributors?
We held a meeting and invited service users to a hotel room in central Cardiff to outline the series. Clinicians were very unwilling to help us find contributors for risk of jeopardising client confidentiality, which we had to respect but it did lengthen the process. We used mailshots from the third sector to let people know about the series.
What would be your advice for people who were planning a research conversation with a possible contributor?
Don’t get overly anxious about talking to people with mental health problems They have usually faced worse situations than a researcher asking a clunky question! Also, build up a relationship slowly, you don’t need to hear the whole story in the first phone call. I found that sharing my experience about my father’s illness helped break down some barriers. Make it a two way conversation, they will want to hear lots about your project, how their contribution will be used, what safeguards have been set up and your duty of care.
How about setting up filming, did you come across any unusual obstacles?
We just needed to be hugely flexible. Don’t assume if you’ve set up a day’s shooting that your contributor will feel up to it. Little and often was better so we came to a deal with our camera operator to work more flexibly.
What safeguards did you put in place to protect or support contributors?
We wrote a very detailed access agreement with Whitchurch Psychiatric Hospital to put in place parameters for filming which outlined in detail how contributors would take part. If a service user was under secondary care we requested (with their permission) written confirmation from their primary care giver (usually psychiatrist) that the contributor was able to provide informed consent to be filmed. We drew up ‘Advance Forms’ which were a written and signed agreements between the contributor and the production company around all areas of filming including what would happen if they became unwell again.
Were there any specific requirements for filming people who had mental health problems?
We worked closely with BBC Editorial Policy to comply with their guidelines on working with vulnerable people. No specific requirements but lots of common sense; don’t rush filming, be flexible and change your plans if necessary. Planning interviews together and providing questions ahead of interviews was important too; to give them time to prepare, especially if contributors wanted to avoid difficult subject areas.
Did you warn people about the possible impact of being on television?
We had very detailed ongoing conversations with contributors about the impact of transmission and stayed in touch with them after filming ended and right through till after broadcast. We discussed the impact on family/friends who may not know about their mental illness. All contributors agreed to take part in publicity and press about the series which was fantastic; this included print, radio and online interviews.
Did any of your contributors have any input into the research or editing process?
We researched their stories carefully prior to filming. They were not involved in the edit but each contributor viewed their episode prior to transmission to check for factual accuracy. Their capacity to provide informed consent was assessed right up to transmission, and programmes would have not been aired if production felt there was any compromise to the contributor’s ability to make informed decisions about taking part.
Did making the programme change your perceptions at all?
Definitely. I was blown away by people’s resilience and the strength they found to battle their mental illness every day. I’ve stayed in touch with the two contributors I filmed with and regularly catch up.
How did you portray mental health visually?
With difficulty! My main concern was illustrating people’s stories in a visual way for television about something that’s going on inside someone’s head. We decided to do this through very direct, down the lens interviews with contributors talking straight to camera. We felt this had more immediacy and impact, talking directly to the viewer.
Generally what advice would you give to programme makers who were planning to tackle a doc about mental health?
Bring an open mind. Think about ways to counter prejudices, don’t find the obvious route. Think about your language really carefully in a script – worth checking it with experts (service users) as the wrong word can be explosive and ill-considered. Persevere – plenty of doors will slam shut in your face but there’s usually another half open!