Mental health in the media: “fruitloops” & “madwomen”

19 Nov

Tonight, the Mind Media Awards winners will be announced at a ceremony in London, hosted by Mind’s president, Stephen Fry. The awards aim to recognise and celebrate the best in online, TV, radio and print media in representing mental health problems. They particularly recognise those who have successfully challenged the myths and stereotpyes that surround mental health problems, as well as those whose work includes the voices of people who have themselves experienced mental health problems.

Below are two pieces I put together after watching TV programmes. The reason I’ve written this blog post is that many people learn about, and form opinions on, mental illness from what they see on TV. The medium can have a big influence.

In that context, here are my thoughts on two recent programmes – a fly-on-the-wall documentary and a big budget costume drama. I’ve linked to two tweet stories – my tweets and the responses of other tweeps which add another dimension – and commented on them. I’ve included tweets sent during the programme – people’s reactions in real time – as well as reflections afterwards.

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(1) 999, What’s Your Emergency? Channel 4 999 What's your emergency

On Monday October 15th, ITV1’s “999 What’s your emergency?” had a mental health theme. The programme is a fly-on-the-wall documentary following staff from 3 of Blackpool’s emergency services, namely the police, ambulance and fire service. As I watched the programme, I was moved to start tweeting. My first tweet was:

“Ah, the familiar old stereotype of someone suffering mental distress being unpredictable & potentially violent.”

Staff are filmed as they go about their jobs, and interviewed afterwards to provide commentary. More details about the programme, as well as link to episodes, is included in the Storify story.

My first tweet was swiftly followed by:

“Er, hello, “split personality”? That’s not schizophrenia. Don’t ambos get any mental health training?”

And:

“”The schizophrenic man”? You wouldn’t call someone “a cancerous man” would you? It’s the diagnosis, not the person.”

The programme – and tweets during and after the programme using the hashtag #999WhatsYourEmergency- illustrated some of society’s attitudes to mental illness. Some of what was said during the programme was jaw-droppingly ignorant (yes, one person referred to “fruitloops”), some of it plain silly and some highly compassionate & insightful. That also applies to the tweets sent during the programme. Read on to find out more.

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(2) Downton Abbey, ITVDownton Abbey

Downton Abbey is ITV’s flagship Sunday night costume drama, reportedly costing £1 million an episode to film. It’s not really my thing as, though beautifully filmed and acted, I find the plot lines a bit clunky. However, it can be a nice bit of fluff to watch on a Sunday night.
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Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen the final episode in the series Ibroadcast on Sunday 11th November) then don’t read on, as this story contains references to plot lines.
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During this episode, one of the central characters found out her prospective beau was married. When she confronted the man, he confessed he was married, but explained that his once-beloved wife had become a madwoman who no longer recognised him.
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The description of his wife’s descent into madness and the trap the husband found himself in – unable to divorce as his wife, as a lunatic, could not be divorced – got me wondering about 1920s matrimonial law & care for psychiatric patients. I threw the question out to Twitter, and received some interesting replies. Was what was described a credible description of mental illness as it was perceived at the time? What might a diagnosis today be? Read on to find out more.
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If you have any thoughts on these 2 stories, or on the topic of mental health on TV, please feel free to leave a comment below.
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