The BBC’s recent three-part documentary Don’t Call Me Crazy, centred around life in a young people’s psychiatric unit, is one of the best portrayals of the realities of living with mental illness to have dragged its wonderfully stigmatised subject matter on to our screens in recent years.
It makes a conscious effort to show the young people it follows not as simple victims whose lives are dominated by their conditions, but as people with the same feelings and flaws, ambitions and insecurities as everyone else, the only difference being that they are suffering under the burden of ill-understood diseases which have had a significant impact on their lives.
The way the programme portrays the patients’ relationships with their illness is true to life, showing the ways in which we can be simultaneously aware of the fact that we have a problem and powerless to stop it. Beth, a 17-year old girl afflicted with an eating disorder, knows that she has huge issues with food and that it’s in her best interests to reach a healthy weight, but at the same time struggles with persistent thoughts telling her that if she eats, she’ll get fat, and that getting fat is the worst of all possible outcomes.
The fact that the documentary manages to capture this curious and awful relationship is testament to the sensitivity with which it handles its subject matter. It resonated extremely strongly with me. There’s a feeling of frustration: you know that there’s something wrong with you causing you to feel this way, to feel like you’re worthless and you can’t move, can’t do anything, can’t even live properly and you should probably die because your entire life is just going to be filled with this mental pain. But even armed with this knowledge, there’s absolutely nothing you can do in the face of the currents of self-destructive thoughts which consistently manage to pull you underwater and make you feel like you’re drowning in your own mind.
One of the main misconceptions that people with mental illness suffer from every day is that there is something different about them, something which makes them Other. The great service this series does is in showing that this simply isn’t the case – mental illness can hit anyone, no matter their gender, race, age or background. There are patients with severe depression, psychoses, eating disorders, obsessions and compulsions who make up every possible demographic. The best way to destigmatise something is to make it relevant to people’s lives, and in this the programme succeeds spectacularly.
Of course, it’s not perfect. The documentary format is necessarily a constraint, as the efforts to portray the whole story of the patients means that often only the highlights and lowlights are shown – a scene in which a patient escapes or has self-harmed is contrasted with numerous scenes of girls dyeing their hair, or the patients on the ward engaging in what appear to be near-constant play-fights. The ‘normality’ segments of the programme often feel like they’re forced, and this may be in part due to the fact that a psychiatric hospital is always going to be an extremely artificial environment in spite of all efforts to make it feel like the outside.
This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but when this is so far the most realistic portrayal of living with mental illness on television at the moment, the way in which the patients act could be taken as paradigmatic for all people with mental health problems, giving the false impression that people afflicted with mental illness are generally incapable of leading relatively normal lives. The fact that they are in a psychiatric hospital – and some have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act – means that they are at the more extreme end of mental illness, and this is not a criticism of the show as such, as its scope is very much limited to the ward. However, the lack of portrayal of more mild versions of mental health problems is at least moderately problematic, as it leaves no room for people who suffer afflictions which are consistently awful but whose symptoms do not manifest in a way which merits being moved to a psychiatric unit.
The only other issue was the ending. Broadly, the series follows Beth’s six month journey through the unit, and there is a happy ending for her as she is released and able to go back to college and dancing. The epilogue says that she is struggling to maintain her ideal weight, but hasn’t self harmed since her release (which is absolutely fantastic, and I wish her all the best in living with such a pernicious illness). It also mentions two other patients who have had brief stints in the unit but who have ultimately been able to go home and get on with their lives. Again, this is fantastic – it’s great to see that the system is able to help young people find their feet even in the face of crippling mental illness.
However, there are other patients who have been depicted during the course of the series who aren’t mentioned in the epilogue. Presumably they are still on the ward, still struggling with their mental health. The failure to mention any of those who remain is an odd obfuscation of reality in a series that has otherwise strived for as much realism as it can achieve. The reality is that many people who suffer from mental illness never go into complete remission – for many of us, whatever it is inside our heads that’s broken is never totally fixed. Whether that means being on a psychiatric ward or simply having to spend more time than we’d otherwise like to looking after our heads, it feels strange that the final narration of the series omits any mention of those left behind, or the struggles of those who live with mental illness on a day-to-day basis. It’s a sacrifice of realism for optimism, and it feels false.
These problems, though, are minor glitches in an otherwise exceptional exploration of the lives of young people suffering from mental illness. The show manages to maintain engagement with the audience at all times whilst at the same time portraying subject with the potential to be sensationalised in a way that is for the most part very well balanced and measured. If you haven’t yet watched this series, there are far, far worse things you could do with three hours of your time.