It seems as though every time I turn on the TV, I'm confronted by yet another programme about mental illness: Mad for Arts, My Crazy Parents, The Woman with Seven Personalities. Although some argue that it's good to see mental illness on prime-time TV, is this really progress?
Watching the episode of My Crazy Parents in which an Oxford-bound son nurses his alcoholic father, I cringed at such a cliched portrayal of alcoholism. The father epitomised every available stereotype about "the alcoholic", coming across as infuriatingly weak-willed, bristling with violence, and hopelessly self-destructive. Another episode showed a 15-year-old girl exhibiting symptoms of her mother's severe mental illness, falling into depression, self harm and drinking. In both cases, I felt manipulated into seeing the parent as a desperate case, and the child as a victim. These shows feel exploitative, emphasising the more sensational aspects of mental illness.
Considering that one in four of us will, during our lifetime, seek help or treatment for a mental illness, it's a shame that the programmes on TV dealing with the subject portray only severe forms of mental illness. Producers aren't interested in showing mental illness as experienced by the vast majority of people. Lacking voyeuristic appeal, documentaries about mild forms of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks (all of which can be accompanied by morbid behaviours like self-harm), are not "exciting" enough to get commissioned. So instead, we see extreme, severe forms of mental illness on TV, which reinforce stereotypes of the mentally ill as unemployable, isolated, lonely, scary, unbalanced and unpredictable.
I know from first-hand experience that only the more sensationalist, voyeuristic mental-illness programmes are getting commissioned. Since I started writing this column, I've been inundated with emails from producers and directors wanting me to be involved in documentaries they're working on. With few exceptions, these people strike me as utterly clueless about the many types of mental illness, the accompanying issues and the sensitive nature of the subject. They seem to be looking for emotional porn. I remember telling a friend, "These people just want something like Wife Swap with 'crazy' people."
The first director to contact me said he was working on a one-hour documentary for Channel 5 about different types of depression and wanted me to be the subject of a 15-minute segment. Meeting his producer, I learned that they wanted the documentary to be "a lighthearted film about depression that isn't depressing". Er, right. The best, though, was still to come. "Nick, I'd like to add a musical number into your story," the director gleefully told me over the phone. "Wouldn't that be fun?" I told him that no, in fact, it wouldn't, and wished him good luck with his project.
Next, I was approached by a producer developing a documentary about depression for the BBC that would "show depression as it really is". Once I had outlined my perceptions about the true essence of depression, it quickly became clear that the last thing she wanted was to make a documentary that showed depression "as it really is". "Basically," she said, suddenly bored, "unless you try to kill yourself, we haven't really got a dramatic hook here have we?" I was so shocked I didn't know what to say. Minutes later, she wrapped the meeting up and thankfully, I never heard from her again.
Another said he was making a documentary about self-harm for Channel 4 and followed my column fanatically. Would I consider presenting the programme? He emailed me a proposal for a programme that would explore "whether self-harm leads to suicide". I wrote back suggesting he re-read my columns, since I have repeatedly debunked this myth. I got an email in response saying, "We're now looking for someone more famous to present the show. Thank you."
It would appear that the vast majority of people making documentaries about mental illness seem to be (a) in it for the money, (b) chasing an easy commission, (c) ignorant of the subject, and (d) utterly disrespectful of those suffering from mental illness. What few of these people seem to realise is that these shows leave most people suffering from or living with mental illness - whether mild or severe - feeling misrepresented, pigeonholed and stigmatised.