by Huma Munshi

Channel 4 launched its documentary series Bedlam recently to share the stories of people who experience significant mental health problems. I watched with interest, as someone who both experiences a number of the issues outlined and who accesses services from the South London and Maudsley. Often our stories are sensationalised with headlines, such as recently by the Sun newspaper, so an opportunity to hear the reality of our daily struggles is something I welcome.

This programme cannot be reviewed without discussing the title, “Bedlam”. Channel 4 explained the use of the title here and this is the key section:

The logic of the name being that South London and Maudsley can trace its origins back to the founding of ‘Bedlam’ in 1247. For the television producers and commissioners, it’s a word that resonates with people who aren’t familiar with the world of mental health. And for those who are familiar they will know the significance of the word and how treatment of mentally ill people has evolved since the ‘Bedlam’ years. 

And, yes, it is provocative. The history of treating mental illness is far from having always been a proud one. ‘Bedlam’ is a name which is often associated with the incarceration of the mentally ill within the walls of the asylum and charging people money to view the ‘lunatics’.”

To attract more viewers a conscious decision was made to use a deliberately provocative name. This is the problematic nature of using mental illness in an entertainment form, which is essentially what prime-time television is. There has understandably been much concern amongst people who experience mental health problems, including myself, on whether this will result in increasing the stigma.

However, despite this issue, about which I remain deeply uncomfortable, the programme does much to lay bare the everyday experiences of people who experience mental anguish.

The opening episode explored the experiences of people with deep anxiety which leads to obsessive thoughts and, if left unchecked, compulsive behaviour. Kate in this episode has a deep anxiety that she will harm someone and James has a concern that he will defecate in public. Viewers witness their on-going struggle to function despite intrusive and obsessive thoughts.

To people who do not experience mental health problems, it depicts how debilitating the daily experience of having intrusive thoughts can be. Of late, my own intrusive thoughts have been overwhelming. I have found that the more intense therapy I undertake – I am currently undergoing group therapy which doesn’t allow you to control what is being discussed, so I feel constantly triggered – the more it stirs long suppressed emotions.

I experience repeated, painful, negative thoughts which manifest themselves in the form of an extremely critical voice. This occurs at any point when I am not talking to people or otherwise intellectually stimulated. On a bad day, it happens from the moment I wake up to the moment I can sleep. It is difficult to explain the struggle to live a life and not succumb to painful, deafening, negative thoughts.

This is a mere snapshot of what I face. So having experienced this intensity of mental health problems, like those people who feature in the documentary, I find the stigma unpalatable.

33a243eb-17ed-4868-9cad-8408916096bdI was invited by Time to Change to the launch of the documentary series at Channel 4 studios and I specifically asked the documentary maker, Dave Nath, about the issue of raising awareness of the experiences of people with mental health problems whilst at the same time creating art that entertains.

The episode that was shown at the launch explored the experiences of people with psychosis. Rosemary’s mental health is deteriorating and she is unable to engage with the community mental health services available and, as a result, is eventually sectioned.
I had, and continue to have, a number of grave concerns about filming this. Firstly, having your liberty taken away by the state has to be one of the single most significant events that can take place in a person’s life: you are vulnerable, distressed and deemed unfit to care for yourself. To put this in the public domain must be done in full consideration of the impact it will have on the person’s life – both at that point and in the future. Once shown, these things cannot be withdrawn.

My second point, and one I would make more generally about Bedlam, is the use of music throughout the documentary. This is a clear example of a disjoint between making a programme for prime-time entertainment and raising awareness and tackling stigma. There is nothing sexy about the minutiae of pain and mental distress. If I was to note down the painful and obsessive negative thoughts I have on a daily and often hourly basis, I can confidently say that it would not be a form of entertainment prime time viewers would want to be exposed to. How does an artistic director get around this?  He uses musical accompaniments.

I specifically asked Dave Nath about the issue of consent, both in terms of what was shown, i.e. the act of being sectioned, as well as how it was shown, i.e. the use of dramatic music in the background. He explained the use of consent in detail: the individual recovered from that acute episode and was able to give her consent for it being shown. In response to being asked about the use of music as a backdrop, his answer was telling:

I am an artistic director; I wouldn’t ask those questions of anyone I filmed”.

That is the difference between illuminating the experience of extremely vulnerable people and the use these stories as a form of entertainment. To my mind, this illustrates that there is an inevitable conflict between the two.

I do not doubt that drawing attention to the everyday struggles of people with mental health problems can help combat some of the very negative messages, e.g. the Asda ‘mental patient’ costume debacle, that are in the public domain. But I also know the ramifications of getting this wrong.

So whilst I welcome the opportunity for the wider public to get an insight into our experiences, I urge caution with film makers who seek to make these programmes entertaining. Our lives are filled with painful struggles, do not forget this when trying to attract those viewers.

You can watch the last episode of Bedlam on Channel 4, Thursday 21st November or on 4OD

Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing at HumaMunshi on feminism, forced marriage, mental illness, films and her trade union activism. She is a regular contributor at the F-Word and Black Dog Tribe amongst others, find her @Huma101 She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others. Huma on BBC 10 O’clock News

4 thoughts on “The Paradox of Bedlam – Can Entertainment Really Help to Tackle Stigma?

  1. Huma. I applaud your bravery in revealing your personal struggles with your own mental health, in order to highlight this issue. I have some limited experience of the environment, as I worked as a Health Care Assistant on Psychiatric wards for a year or so, whilst studying Psychology. I watched the show, and thought it did a good job in humanising the issue of mental illness, particularly in comparison to the sensationalised hysteria that usually accompanies its reporting in the media. But your own personal experiences gives your criticisms of the show more weight. Well done.

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    1. Thanks Lee, appreciate your insight given your professional background. There is a saying in disability equality movements which is “nothing about us, without us”. We will feel these issues very keenly because everyday we are impacted therefore we need to inform the stories about us.

      I also chosen to comment and use my own experience because I refuse to hide. I hope it helps others to get involved and inform the narrative on mental health.

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  2. This is a very brave article. I didn’t see the series, but I did hear about the criticism it was drawing, due to the reasons you highlighted. Mental health issues should never be trivialised by mainstream media, especially when they are rarely discussed in any capacity in the first place. I recently read that the frequency of teenagers suffering anxiety and depression has doubled over the last 30 years, so this is clearly something that society will have to face sooner rather than later.

    I commend you for holding the director of “Bedlam” and Channel 4 to account. Normalising open debates about mental health is the first step towards removing the stigma. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I find the process of writing extremely cathartic, more so than any therapy I’ve undertaken. Partly because I can tell my story and I would encourage opportunities for people with similar problems, but it has to be done with the utmost sensitivity. We should both tell our stories and inform the way they are told.

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