It’s nearly six months since I wrote a lengthy post exploring how mental health issues were being dealt with in film and TV in recent years, particularly in relation to teenagers and young adults. That post, which has since been expanded, can be found here:
I find myself pleasantly surprised that I am now writing a (much shorter) post about the season of programmes on BBC Three about mental health issues and the young. I confess that I haven’t seen all that much of the season – it can, after all, be quite depressing being a depressive watching programmes about depression! I’m sure anyone with a teminal illness would avoid any films made by Hallmark and starring Lindsay Wagner for much the same reason! However, it is clear from the relatively little I have seen, that this is groundbreaking stuff. Not only are the programmes covering a wide range of issues within the subject matter, but they are also a rarity: aimed at young people but treating them like adults. It’s refreshing.
Last night saw the first screening of Failed by the NHS, which examined a number of cases in which young people were let down both by the health system and by individuals within it. The documentary managed to be informative, moving and devastating, but avoided using shock tactics to get its point over. Jonny Benjamin, known to some through his YouTube channel about his own mental health condition, made for an engaging presenter. His interviews with fellow sufferers who had been let down by A&E, GPs, or the health system itself, saw him glean enough information from his interviewees without pushing them to talk about aspects of their lives and illness that they weren’t comfortable with.
I am pleased to say that my own experiences are quite different to those being interviewed. I was diagnosed with depression at around the age of 20, and with bipolar a decade after that. The various GPs I have gone through in that time have treated me well, although I admit I have never found myself in A&E as a result of my illness. The stories in this film were quite different to my own experiences and demonstrate that, although the system was not dealing with the mentally ill particularly well five or ten years ago in some cases, things are getting worse.
The reviews of the documentary that I have read today have not exactly been showering the programme with praise. The Telegraph called it a “soft-pedalled investigation”, whereas online review site Unreality TV found it to be “dry” and “noisy”. What needs to be remembered here is the channel on which it aired. BBC Three is aimed at a young demographic and, while it was aired at 9pm, this programme was no doubt intended to be accessible to a younger audience. Bearing that in mind, it couldn’t go into the depth that some of the critics have suggested it should have. While I, too, would have liked a rather more aggressive interview of the Minister of State for Care, I’m not sure that this was the place for it. If you were watching this, aged 16, and suffering from a mental illness, you would probably want the positive final message that the show ultimately gives rather than a politician being backed into a corner. The Telegraph also wanted to know facts and figures, how often do these case occur, etc. But surely the obsession with statistics is part of the cause for the NHS failures in the first place. People shouldn’t be treated as a number, but as an individual, and if this happens to just the seven people featured in last night’s film, then that is still seven people too many.
The BBC Three season of programmes is a huge step to de-stigmatising mental illness, and does so not just by talking about these issues, but also be presenting us with sufferers of mental illness who, on the outside, show no signs of being ill. By telling their stories, this may well go some way to breaking the myth that, just because you look well, you can’t be really ill – and many of us have had to put up with attitude at some point. It also shows that, just because you’re mentally ill doesn’t mean you are constantly acting “weird”.
That said, there is still a long way to go. Mental illness is more than being about the traditional symptoms. While it was hinted at in last night’s programme, the physical symptoms that go along with mental illness also need to be talked about more: the lethargy, the aches and pains, being more susceptible to bugs and colds etc, stomach issues, headaches, migraines etc. But we can’t do everything at once, and BBC Three should be applauded for everything they have done so far.