Review: 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

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Once in a while, a TV drama series comes along that is genuinely important – and Netflix’s offering 13 Reasons Why is one of them.  Teen dramas seem to be notoriously hard to get right – they are either light and airy with no substance, or they are so intent in getting “messages” or “issues” across that they lack dramatic substance.  13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect by any means, but it does manage to straddle the categories of “issue” TV and “effective drama” for the most part.

Hannah Baker, a teenager, has committed suicide.  Two weeks later, a box of cassette tapes winds up on the doorstep of her friend Clay.  Over the coming days, Clay listens to the tapes, each side of which gives another of the “13 reasons why” Hannah took the step of killing herself.   The series is based on a book I haven’t read but, by all means, is decidedly less bloated than the near 13 hour Netflix adaptation.  But the adaptation benefits from showing the stories of the present day stories of the people mentioned on the tapes, and the affect that the airing of their stories and actions has on them.

What is key here is that 13 Reasons Why is an intelligently written, superbly acted piece of television that deals with bullying, depression, sexuality, assault, and suicide.  A bundle of light-hearted fun it isn’t.  And yet the structure of the series (showing the post-suicide stories) allows for it to be more than just a worthy after-school special type programme.

One would argue that this wasn’t even made for teens at all – indeed, inexplicably the BBFC in the UK have given this an 18 rating.  This is, presumably, because of the two rape sequences which, while uncomfortable, are certainly not of the ilk we are likely to find in an 18 film.  It seems totally counter-productive to have a series dealing with teen issues in an intelligent way being branded as unsuitable for teens under 18!  Perhaps there was a fear that, somehow, the option of suicide would look attractive to the viewer – but anyone seeing the final episode where we see the act itself will know that isn’t the case either.  Thankfully, the series is on Netflix and younger people will no doubt have access to it anyway – but a 15 certificate would certainly have been more apt and appropriate.

But 13 Reasons Why is most important because it deals with mental health issues – with depression and suicide – without lecturing, and without talking down to the viewer, and without trivialising it.  In fact, the term “depression” is barely mentioned at all.   But this is the topic that dare not speak its name, of course.  We don’t talk about mental health.  But here it is “discussed” along with teen issues “responsibly.”  A number of episodes have warnings about the content before they start.  The first episode has helpline numbers before it.  And there is a documentary appendix episode dealing with the issues featured in the series.

All of this, and yet any adult who has gone through mental health issues has to ponder quite what the point of those phone numbers are.  We should seek help if we are going through the problems featured in the series, we are told.  And yet there are thousands of us with mental health issues who have come forward and asked for help with our condition and yet cannot receive any.  We are told on the NHS in the UK of a year-long waiting list for counselling, for example.  It is rather scary that a TV drama can be more responsible about the damage mental health issues can do than our own health system or our own government in recognising its failings.

But I have written about that at length elsewhere, and this is about the series.  The “13 reasons” are spread over 13 episodes and, as some others have noted, this is too many.  Quite easily, there are occasions where two reasons could have fitted into one episode, for example.  The central episodes, directed by Gregg Araki, are bloated and move very slowly before the series gathers pace again around episode 10.

As much as I admire and “liked” the series, though, there is a feeling that the final instalment is unsatisfactory.  The realms of possibility are stretched, as not one, not two, not three, but four students in the same group of friends get their hands on guns – and we’re not told of the consequences of this in most cases.  Instead of giving us a neater ending, the series makes the mistake of making sure it is left open for a second season.  It’s the one thing that lets the programme down.  All of this good work, this great writing and wonderful acting, is jeopardised because the programme makers/Netflix wanted to make sure they still had a story to tell if a second season was decided upon.

Sometimes a story just needs to be told and then finish – especially when adapting a novel, which obviously does have an ending.  In fact, the problem here is that, rather than giving the viewer the idea that there is a second season in the offing, it gives the impression that someone forgot to make a final episode – because episode 13 acts like a penultimate one, not a final one.   And this is such a shame.

But even this error of judgement can’t undo the good work here.  Dylan Minnette gives one of the best performances in a TV series I have seen for a very long time – and one of the most nuanced accounts of a “troubled teen” I’ve seen in film or TV.  Everything about the performance rings true.  The same is true for Katherine Langford as Hannah, although she, ironically, has less to work with – not least because of those bloated episodes in the centre of the series, and the fact that she is only on screen for around half of the running time.

As a final note, Netflix chose to release all of the episodes of the series in one go – and this was possibly a mistake.  This is not binge-watch television, and it really doesn’t work well when watched in that way as it slowly numbs the viewer to each new event that is revealed in the story of Hannah Baker, and nothing becomes shocking.  While there is a “thriller” – even a “whodunit” – element to the story, that isn’t what this is about, and a weekly episode format would have worked better.  But it is what it is – an intelligent, gripping, and responsible series that deals with teen life in an undeniably adult way, and in a way that most dramas simply don’t have the balls to do.

A Ghost of a Chance (new novel)


I am pleased to announce the publication of my new young adult novel A Ghost of a Chance!

Chet Barclay is a gay, jazz-obsessed sixteen year old that has been suffering from depression since the mysterious suicide of his boyfriend a few months earlier. When his parents go away on holiday, Chet is overjoyed at the thought of being alone in the house for a week – and away from his constantly fussing mother. However, it doesn’t take long before he starts hearing strange noises, and things start to move around by themselves. Chet begins to wonder whether he is alone in the house after all, especially when a friend tells him she saw the ghost of a boy there just after he had moved in. And how is everything connected to the bizarrely realistic dreams he has been having? Chet soon realises that he is about to embark on one of the strangest weeks of his life…

The book features a lead character who has depression – I myself have had bipolar disorder going back nearly two decades. I wanted to write something that had a character with depression but where the storyline didn’t revolve around that.  Therefore, A Ghost of a Chance is a surprisingly irreverent, lighthearted book at times but, through Chet’s storytelling, also portrays the difficulties that all sufferers of depression have to cope with.  I hope it will be seen as a positive portrayal of ordinary guy saddled with a difficult condition, and a far cry from the portrayals we see so often of those with mental illness seen as violent, unpredictable and about to go on a murderous rampage!

The Kindle edition will be free to download from October 29th to October 31st, 2016.

Naive Nick’s Mental Health Pledge

nick clegg mental health

Are those with mental health conditions meant to be jumping for joy at Nick Clegg’s announcement today that a target would be set that all sufferers will have access to talking therapies within eighteen weeks should the current coalition find themselves still in power after the next election?  This will, apparently, mean that around £120m of extra funding (more about the “extra” later) will be spent over the next two years – this will, I guess, go towards restoring some of the funding that has been cut over the last four years since the coalition  has been in power.

For me, the whole thing smacks of empty rhetoric, grave naivety and a cynical touting for votes.  No-one is going to moan that waiting times are going to be cut or that more spending on mental health will take place, but the ridiculous simplicity with which mental health is being treated is rather insulting to those who are suffering from these conditions.  It’s thought that up to 10% of sufferers die as a direct or indirect result of their condition.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  If those stats were related to a form of cancer, there would be a considerable outcry if a waiting time for treatment was reduced to eighteen weeks.  Reduced.  God knows how long the wait must be now if you’re not one of the lucky few who lives in the right postcode.

The lack of understanding of mental illness by those spouting these latest wonders is only too evident with the announcement that suicidal patients will get the same priority as those with a suspected heart attack.  That’s all very nice, but people with a suspected heart attack ring 999 – people who are suicidal do not.  Suffering from a mental health condition for up to eighteen weeks without access to certain treatment might be enough to turn someone suicidal in the first place. And there’s also this strange notion that people are either suicidal or they’re not – something which fails to take into account that people might be fine one day and not the next.  That MPs are simplifying conditions in this way is insulting – the least they could do is try to understand the issue in the first place.   But to do so, and to acknowledge the complexities doesn’t make for such rousing speech-writing.

And how about reviewing the benefits process for those with mental health conditions.  The Personal Independence Payment form might give an indication of how serious a physical disability is, but it’s a joke when it comes to mental health, with half of the questions not even applying to people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and the like.  Can we use the loo?  Well, yes, thank you very much – but why aren’t you asking us about issues of concentration that prevent us doing things, or panic attacks that might stop us going to a supermarket.  And, wait for this one folks, if you can’t use public transport due to your condition you might be awarded a free bus pass.  I kid you not.

Charities have welcomed today’s news – they have little choice: more funding is better than funding cuts, no matter how modest the targets that have been set.  Just six weeks ago, The Independent ran a story stating that mental health services are “dangerously close to collapse,” and that there were 3000 less nurses working in the sector than two years earlier.  57 mental health trusts had lost £253m in funding.  And yet we should be saying “well done” and “how wonderful” to the coalition for promising to put half of that money back.   That’s hardly “extra funding.”

I confess that I have been lucky during the twenty years I have had my own condition.  When I first fell ill, I got to see a doctor within hours (this was 1995 when you could do that) and, since then, I have always been treated by my succession of GPs with respect, concern and (thankfully) good humour.  The last in that list might seem like an odd addition, but actually it highlights the importance of striking up a rapport with your GP, especially with regards to mental health conditions where, more than ever, everyone is different.  I have a great relationship with my GP, not least because she knows I’m more than willing to find the humour within the issues that I have.   It’s the way I get through.  Another doctor wouldn’t get or understand that.

The problem is that seeing your own GP (including my own) is not that easy anymore.  Often the waiting time to see your regular doctor these days is two weeks, not two hours.  If I had a severe turn for the worse with my illness, would I even contemplate seeing a doctor I didn’t know?  Probably not – and with good reason: notes on a screen are not the same as talking to someone who has seen how your condition has changed (or not) over a number of years.  Mental health conditions aren’t a series of test results, facts and figures, where X+Y = medication A.  It’s far more complicated than that – which is why some of the rhetoric used by Nick Clegg today comes across as so naive.

Any increase in mental health budgets is to be welcomed, but it shouldn’t have got this bad in the first place – and the amount of money involved doesn’t get close to making up for the cuts from the budgets over the last few years.  And, while Clegg has said he wants to work to stamp out the stigma associated with such conditions, that promise seems very empty too.  There are few, if any, signs of how he plans to do that.  Does he mean well?  Possibly.  But, as with most things he does and says, his ineptness and lack of deep understanding of the problem is laughable or offensive, depending on your mood (swing).

Mental Health: Don’t Forget It

depressionA man died this week and suddenly a discussion of mental health issues has started.  There is an outpouring from twitter users, as they retweet messages about depression.  Statuses of support for sufferers of depression are being shared over and over on facebook.  There’s even a multitude of new videos on YouTube on the subject.  The problem is that, last week, most of these people didn’t give a fuck about depession.  And, after the funeral of a well-loved celebrity, the furore over how sufferers are let down by the system and by society will die down to a quiet murmur once again. 

Depression, bipolar and other mental health conditions DO need to be talked about, not least because the lack of understanding about these issues is so severely lacking amongst many members of the public – and it is that stigma that prevents many from seeking treatment or admitting they have a problem.  There is something of a backlash about comments made on TalkSport radio by Alan Brazil (I have no idea who he is) in which he said he had “no sympathy” for Robin Williams.  Shep Smith, a newscaster on Fox News in America, referred to Williams as a coward.  Both men, bizarrely, still have their jobs.  The truth of the matter, though, is that many members of the public have the same lack of understanding of depression as these two men – and twitter and facebook have shown that too in the last few days. 

Suicide is thought to be the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  Mental health issues affect 1 in 4 of us at some point in our lives.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, around 30% of sufferers will attempt suicide, and it is thought that around 10-15% of sufferers die as a consequence of the condition. 

A 10-15% fatality rate.

So, what are we doing about it?  Well, we’ll talk about if for a few weeks and then forget it.  Public figures and politicians will tell us that support has to be given to sufferers.  However, mental health budgets in the UK are being slashed.  For example, six weeks ago the BBC reported that the budget for child and adolescent mental health services at Birmingham City Council were cut “from just above £2.3m in 2010-11 to £125,000 in 2014-15, a drop of 94%.”  Mental health trusts have had their budgets slashed by 20% this year.  NHS England has cut budgets for mental health by 2%. 

There has to be a link here between the lack of education on the subject (and thus its perceived seriousness) and the cutting of budgets.  It’s still thought people can “snap out of it” or that it isn’t a “real” illness.  If the condition had the word “cancer” or “disease” at the end of it, we would all be looking at in a very different way.  It is as real as diabetes or heart disease.  The fact it doesn’t show up in a blood test robs it of that reality. 

What I’m trying to say here is that, for a few days or weeks, mental health issues will matter to more people than ever before because someone they liked on the telly has died as a result of it.  But those deaths (and attempted deaths) are happening all the time.  It’s a reality that people and governments need to wake up to.  More than ever it is time to educate, talk, support and treat. 

In the four minutes it took you to read this article, six people will have attempted suicide in the USA alone.  Five of them will have had a known mental health issue at the time. 

Bipolar and Work

Someone said something interesting to me online a week or two ago.  They said they thought that it was strange (I think that was a polite way of saying “stupid”) that I had mentioned in my blog and on my twitter feed that I have bipolar at a time when I was also looking for a job.  It’s not something that had really crossed my mind until that point and, as you can see, the comment obviously hasn’t put me off talking about it again.  What it did reiterate, however, was the public’s perception of mental health issues.  I’ve already discussed this before in relation to depictions of mental health problems in film and TV – and, since that post, I have since seen the fourth series of Canadian cop show Rookie Blue, which really should be ashamed of itself in its depiction of someone with bipolar as an obsessive stalker who puts people’s lives at risks through her actions.  We appear to take two steps forward but then one step back.  (That said, I still have a soft spot for Rookie Blue).

Now, all of that isn’t to say that bipolar makes a career or a job an easy thing, and I’m the first to admit that choosing a profession carefully so that you can somehow accommodate your highs and lows is a priority.  However, we don’t live in a time where people can pick and choose where they work or what they do.  Six years after the banking crisis, a job is a job and many need to grab whatever they can find.  Despite that, allowances need to be made and realism has to play a part because bipolar or depression or any other mental health condition is likely to cause issues at some point.

Let’s take, for an example, a job in an office in which the employee is expected sit at their desk and process 100 forms per day.   The chances of me, with bipolar, being able to perform at the same level constantly day after day, week after week, is highly unlikely.  By the very definition of the condition, one day might result in 200 forms being processed, and yet on another I might struggle to get 30 done.  A daily deadline of this kind is therefore not really feasible; during a depressive phase everything I do is almost in slow motion. However, a weekly or monthly target is certainly possible.  So, if instead of 100 forms a day, I was told I needed to 500 per week or 2000 per month, that would be fine, as I could make the most of the times when I was feeling OK and therefore give myself breathing space for when the inevitable down periods came along.

I’ve been studying for the best part of eight years, through my BA, MA and then PhD, but I did work full time for nine years before I started studying.  I hope things have changed in the workplace since then, and there is more understanding of conditions such as bipolar and depression.  I remember having a particularly bad spell back in 1998 and having some time off work because of it.  Most colleagues tried to be understanding, although the truth is that they didn’t understand because people were less educated about these conditions back then.  On my return to work, I was constantly asked if I was “OK”, and my line manager at the time told me my work needed to be checked thoroughly by her because of my “mental instability”.  The truth was that my work was fine, it was just me who wasn’t.  However, I got to the stage where I realised pretending I was fine was the way forward.  So I started going to work each day, assuming a bright and breezy cheerful persona for eight hours in order to stop all the questions, and then arrived home knackered each night because I had been putting in an eight hour acting performance of which Laurence Olivier would have been proud.

As it happens, the coping mechanisms that many of us have in place after having these conditions for so long probably make us more reliable workers than many others.  I knew I had to work around the bipolar while I was studying, and so would get coursework done a week or two in advance of the deadline in order to give myself a breathing space in case a bad patch came along.  I did the same with my PhD, finishing it within the three year period and writing a 70,000 word novel alongside it.  That’s not intended  to be a boast, but a sign to potential employers reading this that we are as reliable as anyone else, and to those with the condition it’s a message that it can be worked around if we put out mind to it.

There are shit periods, though, and last week was one of them for me – probably the worst I have been for a couple of years.  Luckily it was short-lived and I seem to be back to “normal” now.  But, even then, the marking of essays still got done on time, and the seminar still got prepared and delivered in the same fashion as any other week.  And no, I didn’t sit at the front of the seminar group rocking back and forth crying and screaming.  At least, if I did, no-one mentioned it afterwards (I jest).

What I’m trying to say here is that the prejudices towards (and misinformation about) those with bipolar and other mental health issues still continue.  Slowly but surely we are hearing of people who have turned their lives around and who are not only living a “normal” life but achieving more than many without the condition.  Determination is a wonderful thing.  Yes, allowances will have to be made at some point – not just by employers, but by friends and family too.  Bipolar isn’t just a pain for the person who has it, but it can be a bastard for the people who have to live with it as well.

And attitudes are changing, especially among the young.  The support amongst the younger generation on social media of campaigns to stamp out mental health stigma is staggering…and beautiful (and the same is true of campaigns to stamp out homophobia and bullying, too).   And a difference is slowly but surely being made.

But there is a long way to go.  If sufferers are going to do their best to live a normal life with their condition, then there needs to be more understanding (or, more accurately, flexibility) amongst employers as well.  Just because mental health issues aren’t always visible doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that there shouldn’t be a certain degree of allowances made within the workplace to accommodate the various ups and downs that come with these conditions.   We’re trying our best, and all that we ask for is that we are met halfway.

Breaking Point and Breaking Down



The sudden spate of publicity about “Breaking Point” over the last week or so has made me revisit the idea of a follow-up book.  The following is a personal piece about the writing of the novel and the motivations behind it.  It was useful to write to put my own thoughts in order but, also, I thought it might be useful to read for those who might be encouraged to read the book in the coming weeks thanks to the recent publicity on Twitter.  If this little essay comes over as a vanity project, it’s not the intention.  It’s more like a private journal entry being made public, a stream-of-consciousness in which I attempt to put some thoughts and ideas in order. 


Life has a strange way of surprising us when we least expect it.  I published Breaking Point as an e-book back in 2011, and sold around six copies over the space of eighteen months.  This wasn’t devastating, but instead totally expected.  After all, Breaking Point is a novel that centres on the subject of homophobic bullying in schools.  It’s hardly bestseller material.  What’s more, it sits in a kind of no-man’s–land between a young adult book and an adult book.  Sure,  for the most part it revolves around a group of sixteen year olds, but they act and speak in a way us adults try to forget they are capable of.

In order to have a bit of a break from writing my PhD thesis, I revised Breaking Point in late 2012 and reissued it in February 2013.  I found that the world was very different in 2013 than in 2011.  Twitter had suddenly become a great marketing tool, a way to reach out and tell people about the book.  In the space of eleven months, seven thousand copies of Breaking Point have now been downloaded.  I’ll admit, many of these were during free promotions etc, but nobody writes a first novel for it to make money, but in the hope that it will be read.  By someone.

A few weeks back, I was able to self-publish Breaking Point in paperback.  I knew then that very few copies would shift – most people who wanted to read it had already done so through the e-book.  But at least the paperback allows the book to reach school libraries, for example – and I hope that is what happens.   Around the same time, things took an unexpected turn when I was contacted by Amanda Taylor from the University of Central Lancashire who wanted to talk to me about the book in relation to the Social Work Book Club – this, too, has resulted in publicity of the book through Twitter and elsewhere.

The comments about the book, and the reviews on Amazon, have often been touching and moving.  I have received private messages on Twitter from people who have read the book, and received emails too.   I’m still partly in shock about this, despite the fact that the book is only doing what it set out to do in the first place.

What is that, exactly?

Well, I guess the aims were twofold.  Firstly I wanted to write a gay-themed work that didn’t resort to long passages of sex to try and get the reader to part with their cash or their time.  As a gay man, I find it really quite offensive that filmmakers and many authors think we only want to read gay-themed stories if they contain an abundance of nudity and sex – that these directors and writers are mostly gay men themselves only compounds the problem, making it appear that the LGBTs of this world are interested in one thing only.  I don’t believe that’s true.   I have been into Waterstone’s book shop and asked where the LGBT fiction can be found, and been told “it’s under ‘erotica’”.   What the bloody hell is it doing under “erotica?”  Well, part of the reason, I guess, is that most of the gay fiction out there today does have a substantial erotic element.   Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t raise eyebrows amongst LGBTs, such subject matter is par for the course for gay fiction.  Even today, the act of sex seems to define who and what a gay man (or woman) is.  I find that scary and sad in equal measure.

I think most of us would be just as happy finding mirrors of ourselves on the silver screen.  And I don’t mean mirrors of who society thinks we are, but mirrors of who we really are.  There is no place for a stereotype in 2013.  We are, after all, individuals.  For all the talk of the “LGBT community”, we are still not clones of each other, or definitely going to like and admire each other just because we are sexually attracted to a particular gender.  It’s lunacy.  We wouldn’t expect all heterosexuals to be the same and like the same things and people just because they are all attracted to the opposite sex.

So, I wanted to write a book that didn’t rely on cheap thrills to get an audience. And I wanted to write a book where the gay characters didn’t live in a separate world to straight characters – again, this seems to be something that only happens in the world of gay-themed independent (American) filmmaking.   But the second major thing I wanted to do was to give a certain group of people a voice.

I wrote earlier about how we perceive fifteen and sixteen year olds, and how they really act and talk.  The bullying in Breaking Point centre on a type that is not talked about in the press or on TV, and concentrates very much on embarrassment and humiliation.  The reason we don’t hear about this as much is because the victims don’t want to talk about it.  While the incidents within the book didn’t happen to me, they are nearly all inspired by personal stories people have written on the web or from the very few newspaper articles that mention this type of behaviour.  The victims don’t want to talk about it – and understandably so, and so Breaking Point was intended to give those victims a voice, and to bring these issues out into the open.  I never intended to provide answers or resolutions to the problems.  That’s not my job, and neither am I qualified to do such a thing.  I don’t think there are solutions, certainly not blanket ones that work in every case.  If there were, we wouldn’t still be having this problem.

The reason for me writing this blog post is because I am trying to get my thoughts in order as to where to go next.  For me, the answer is an obvious one.  In order to finish what I have started, the rest of the story has to be told.  Bullying doesn’t end with the last day of school – either for the victims or the bullies.  The repercussions are there for a long time, in some cases throughout the person’s life.   The victim doesn’t walk out of the school gates on that last day, start smiling, and float through the next few years unaffected by what has happened.  I was diagnosed with depression two years after leaving school, and with bipolar ten years after that – which I still have, albeit nicely under control.  These kind of after effects are what I want to use as the backbone for “Breaking Down”, the tentative title of the follow-up to Breaking Point. 

I wrote a blogpost earlier in the year about cinematic depictions of mental health issues, and I face the same quandary as the films I discuss there:  how do you make the depiction of depression realistic and sympathetic, but also make it entertaining?  A novel has to be entertaining, after all.  Well, unless it’s written by Henry James, but let’s not go there.  And this is where I am falling down at the moment.  I know how the plot needs to unfold, I know how I want to depict the issues it raises, but I still need to find a way to do that in an entertaining way that makes people want to read the next page.   And that’s not going to be easy.

Will Breaking Down ever get finished?  I hope so, not least because I like the few chapters that have already been written.  But for it to be successful in any way, it has to concentrate on the individual experience, and not resort to the stereotypes that have plagued gay and lesbian film and books, and depictions of mental illness, for so many years.

For those that have read Breaking Point, or helped to spread the word, I shout out a huge “thank you” – the idea of seven thousand people owning  a copy of my book would have been laughable just a year ago.  So, thank you for making 2013 a memorable and very special year.

BBC Three’s “It’s a Mad World” season

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.

Mental Illness Comes Out of the Celluloid Closet


You feel invisible.  You feel like a ghost, and a ghost that nobody believes in.  There’s this sense of isolation” (Susie Bright)

There are lots of needs for art, and the greatest one is the mirror of our own lives and our own existence.  And that hunger I felt as a kid looking for gay images was to not be alone.” (Harvey Fierstein)

In many ways, the above quotes changed my life.  They are taken from the documentary The Celluloid Closet, which I first saw as a twenty-two year old closeted gay man back in September 1996 when it first aired on British TV.   This was two months before I started work as an admin assistant at the university with which I am still connected.  That six month contract lasted for nine years, before I called it a day and commenced my BA degree in 2005 at the same university.  Eight years later, I’m a few months from handing in my PhD – and a long way from that office where I used to work in the School of Computing.  Quite whether I would have handed in my notice and pursued a degree in film had I not seen The Celluloid Closet is something I shall never know, but that documentary – and, in particular, the quotes above – certainly got me interested in film history in a way that I had not been before.  While I had always liked old films, my eyes had been opened to what these films could tell us about our past (and our present), and there was a personal angle to film history: What did it mean to me?  And, as for those quotes with which I open this lengthier-than-usual post, well, they somehow described how I was feeling living in a small village, not out of the closet, not brave enough to enter a gay bar in the nearest city, and a few years before the internet became a common feature of our lives.

Recently, I was involved in a discussion on a message board about the mass shootings that took place in America last year (bear with me, this will all come together eventually).  The issues being discussed were not just ones of possible changes to gun control in America, but also about mental health issues, particularly in the young, and the part these had had in the shootings.  What became clear was that mental health problems were still heavily stigmatised, and rarely discussed, and certainly not “normalised” for the most part (in parts of the USA), and thus many people who needed help were simply not getting it due to the stigma attached to admitting they had a problem.  There have been campaigns in the UK over the last five years or so to try to get mental health issues such as depression and schizophrenia talked about more within society and to try to educate people about these problems and remove the stigma attached to them.   While things are slowly changing in the right direction, it still seems odd that I fear the reaction to telling someone that I am bipolar more than the reaction to telling them I’m gay – especially having been a teenager at a time when homosexuality was largely not accepted by the masses.  In one area we have moved on so far (things aren’t perfect, but they rarely are), but in the other we haven’t progressed a great deal since I was diagnosed back in 1995.

The comments that Susie Wright and Harvey Fierstein made in that 1996 documentary don’t really hold true any more with regards to homosexuality.  That is thanks, in part, to the rise of the home video industry and, more importantly, the introduction of the DVD – a platform far cheaper to produce than VHS tapes.  A multitude of gay-themed films are now available to us – some good, some bad, some just plain ugly.  OK, most are independent or foreign language films, but Hollywood is making headway too.  And, more importantly perhaps, we are even finding LGBT characters in films and TV shows that are not actually about being gay or lesbian.   This goes further to “normalising” homosexuality far more than a gay film that seems to consist only of gay and lesbian characters and is solely about being gay.  Take the Robin Williams vehicle The Night Listener, for example.  Here is a film in which the sexuality of the character just is; it actually has little or no relevance to the narrative.  Or how about the US TV series The United States of Tara, in which the teenaged son of the family is gay, but there is no big coming out scenes?  The family already accepts him for who he is before the first episode even starts, and his various coming of age issues are much the same as those of any other teenager, gay or straight – except that his mother has a multiple personality disorder.  Although it is worth saying that the killing off of one of the gay characters in the series was an unwelcome harking back to the Hollywood of the past where gay men just were not allowed to be happy.  It was one of the few bad moves the series made in this area, and leaves something of a bitter aftertaste simply because of this throwback to earlier times.

If homosexuality has been normalised on our screens over the last fifteen years or so, depression and mental health issues have been conspicuous by their absence.  Which brings me back to those two original quotes at the top of this post – those with mental health issues are largely still invisible in film and TV, and until recently there has certainly been no mirror images for sufferers on the screen – especially if you are young.  A number of European films come to mind – Lakki: The Boy Who Could Fly (1992), The Man Who Loved Yvenge (2008) (both Norwegian), and Presque Rien (2000) all deal with depression and other issues.  Ben X (2007) deals with autism, and this and other movies such as The Suicide Room (2011) and The Class (2007) present us with characters who suffer either from alienation or depression, or both, depending on how you read the film.

The Suicide Room is worth discussing in more detail.  This Polish film tells the story of Dominik, a closeted gay young man who is dared at a party to kiss another boy at his school.  This is videoed and posted on line, and everyone takes it in the good humour in which it was intended.  However, a couple of weeks later, the two boys are involved in a judo bout during which Dominik accidentally orgasms.  This news also hits the social media pages, but this time Dominik is ridiculed and he sinks slower into a depression that sees him seeking solace in an internet chatroom, the “suicide room” of the title.  This is quite different in style and format to the American films I’m going to discuss later, in that this is a film about teenagers but squarely aimed at adults.

But in the UK and America, depression and mental illness has been sadly absent from our screens.  But finally, I believe that is slow changing thanks to  a slow but steady stream of recent films dealing with the issue.

It’s taken long enough.  Back in 2006, an article in the Journal of Health Communication called for a collaboration between the mental health sector and the film industries in order “to counter negative portrayals of mental illness, and to explore the potential for positive portrayals to educate and inform, as well as to entertain” (Perkis, Blood, et al, 2006: 536).  However, it took until 2013 for President Obama to encourage a collaboration in America between the health sector and the media.   An article in the Hollywood Reporter quotes the president of the Entertainment Industries Council as saying “Media and entertainment professionals can play a significant role in the public’s understanding of mental health. …Inaccurate portrayals of individuals living with mental illness can fuel misconceptions that could lead to subsequent discrimination and deter individuals from seeking help for mental health challenges.”  The timing of this is not coincidental, and is clearly wrapped up in the debates that have opened up following last year’s shootings, as mentioned earlier.

But things had been moving forward anyway.  For example, Dare (2009) is an independent film dealing with both issues of sexuality and mental health.  The film follows three teenagers as their lives intertwine romantically, with the film divided into three sections, with each one devoted to the story of one of the characters.  Johnny is the “bad boy” character that is at the centre of the film, and with whom both Ben and Alexa (the other two of the trio) become involved.  What we are perhaps surprised about when it comes to Johnny’s section (the last) is that underneath the bad boy image he is actually a troubled young man who sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis.   Johnny’s “issues” are never actually spelled out to the viewer, although we are led to believe that they are related to a sense of isolation, alienation – and depression.

Only last year, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) provided us with another character, Charlie, who is suffering mental health issues following the death of his friend.  This issue bubbles beneath the surface of the film for the majority of its running time, before finally erupting in the final reel, and yet it is still dealt with in a sympathetic and realistic way.   What’s more, Charlie puts into words exactly how it feels to be depressed.  “There’s so much pain.  And I don’t know how not to notice it,” he says.  This is one of the few times as a sufferer of depression and bipolar for nearly twenty years that I have felt my own experiences portrayed accurately on screen.  Depression isn’t about being sad or unhappy, it’s about somehow being affected by the sadness and unhappiness around us, and not being able to distance ourselves from it.

Charlie in Wallflower does have a distinct reason for his problems (which I won’t go into here in case you have yet to see the film).   However, the vast majority of us suffering from clinical depression really don’t appear to have a reason for being the way we are.  It’s not because a relative passed away, or the cat got run over, or because we got bullied at school.  All of these might be triggers for periods of depression, of course.  But, if I have learned anything about the illness over the last two decades, it’s that it just is and that there is no underlying cause.

This is where It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) fits in.   In this fine film, Craig, a young man played by Keir Gilchrist (who, coincidentally played the gay son in United States of Tara), checks himself into a psychiatric ward when he fears that he might harm himself.  He thinks he will be in and out by the next day and back at school, but he soon finds out that he has to be admitted for a week – and also that the juvenile ward is closed, and so he will be kept in the adult ward.  There are some parts of the film that are slightly hard to believe.  For example, as a depressed teenager, Craig seems remarkably at ease in social situations and makes friends within the ward very easily.  However, this is a film – and ninety minutes watching a boy who doesn’t speak to anyone would make for relatively dull viewing.

What I found most remarkable watching the film from the viewpoint of someone who has suffered from bipolar for eighteen years, is that Craig isn’t depressed for any particular reason.  Sure, he has stresses from home and school and so on, but these are never really presented to us as the reason for his depression. He is simply a clinically depressed teenager – and, while he will have ups and downs, it’s something he will probably have to deal with for the rest of his life.  From this point of view, the film is something of a revelation.  After watching the film, my reaction was “At Last!”  Finally, my own experiences were being represented.

Despite these fine films, and better attempts at representing the realities or depression (or, at least, my reality), there is still a long way to go in both educating the public and making sure that these characters are the norm and not the exception.   Funny Story was well-received by the mental health sector, and praised for its portrayals of both patients and treatments, and yet the message somehow still failed to sink in in some quarters.   For example, A G Scott wrote in the New York Times review that “this hospital, Argeron, feels like an oasis where the sad can congregate in safety and do their best to make one another laugh”.   Despite watching the film, Scott has still come out thinking that depressed people are simply unhappy and can be cheered up with a good joke book.

Will films like  It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and other films covering these issues such as Dare and Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2011) (and a TV series such as The United States of Tara)  make a difference on how teenagers view depression and other mental illnesses?  Well, it’s hard to say, but it is even more unlikely that these issues will be discussed and somehow de-stigmatised if they remain buried and not talked about or portrayed in the media.  These are certainly not issues that are going to go away – but they are also issues that are difficult to include in films and TV series – how does one approach depression, portray it realistically, and yet also make it entertaining?  Thankfully, It’s Kind of a Funny Story manages to do this, but it is not in the majority.  To see the other side of the coin, check out the aforementioned tedious Lakki:  The Boy Who Could Fly.  The fact that this is about the only major issue affecting teenagers that a series like Glee has yet to cover in any depth suggests that are difficulties in doing so.

These are difficult issues.  But thankfully, slowly but surely, they are being portrayed in films and TV series aimed at young people – and that can only be a good thing.  However, we are at a crossroads.  This year has seen two contrasting TV series shown in America, both dealing with mental illnesses.  On the one hand we have Bates Motel, detailing the formative years of Norman Bates (although set in the present day), which deals with Norman’s character and his mental health issues in a sympathetic way – despite the fact he murders at regular intervals.  On the other hand, we have American Horror Story: Asylum, set during the early 1960s, which portrays the inmates of the asylum as a bunch of almost inhuman nutcases, and those treating them as sex-obsessed psychopaths who may or may not been involved in the running of the concentration camps during World War II.    While both of these programmes are horror stories, and not necessarily intended to be realistic, the likelihood is that they will be seen by more people than who saw a sympathetic portrayal in Wallflower or Funny Story, and therefore continue the misinformation that already stigmatises those with mental health issues.  We have come a long way in the last few years, but there is still a long way to go.


This article was published on 22 February, 2013, and updated on July 2nd, 2013.