Reflections on 4GoesMad and the value of 'mad confessions'
The latest series of programmes from Channel 4 addressing the issue of the stigma surrounding mental illness caused a stir even before it was aired.
4GoesMad began last night with 'Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions', and before the show began social media seemed split down the middle; those people who were really pleased that mental health was getting such a prime time slot and those annoyed with the titling of the programmes, even to the point of stating they would refuse to watch.
Personally, while slightly disappointed that a controversial ‘tag line’ was needed to get people interested I wasn’t going to let that stop me watching. Having been lucky enough to meet Ruby Wax a few months ago and discussing the new social network she has started for people with mental illness; I knew that the show was setting out to change attitudes and challenge stigma, no matter what it was actually called.
I was not disappointed. Ruby Wax spent some time describing her own experience with clinical depression and in her own unique, slightly quirky way tried to bring some laughter to a subject that often raises more tears than smiles. The three high fliers who volunteered to take part in the show and come out to their work communities about their mental health issues were articulate about their struggles. More than anything it seemed that they really wanted to help others understand that having depression/OCD doesn’t mean that they can’t be just as successful and accomplished in their careers than someone without.
The statistics highlighted in the show are shocking. As well as the well-publicised fact that 1-in-4 of us will experience some kind of mental health issue in our lifetimes, 75% of people with a mental health problem remain undiagnosed and untreated. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35 and 1-in-10 people will suffer with depression at some point. These facts alone should be telling us that we need to do more to support those who are struggling with mental ill health and more in prevention at the earlier stages. The show takes steps to challenging the stigma that people with mental health problems often come up against from their colleagues and peers.
However, it would be wrong to assume that it’s that simple. To tell your work mates that you have suffered with depression and have such a positive response is what we would all hope for but unfortunately it may not be the case. Of course I am relieved and happy for those who took part in the show that their colleagues and friends were so supportive. I agree that only by talking about mental illness and showing the world that we are just as normal as the rest of them will we break down stigma but in my experience the response to disclosure might not always be as uplifting as those shown in the programme. I can only wonder whether the response would have been the same without the TV cameras and celebrity presence of Ruby Wax. I’m not saying don’t speak up; only to do it mindfully and to be aware of how you might feel about people’s responses, positive or negative.
Despite my reservations I do think that the programme will have no doubt inspired intense debate among those who take an interest in mental health and reducing stigma. My only hope is that the conversation doesn’t just end there. There will be many people who found something ‘better to watch’ last night or for whom the subject of mental health lies so far under the radar they didn’t even know it was on.
The challenge facing those who watched and now feel that the issue is something worth talking about, is to do something, whether that is as those in the show did, opening up to those around us about our own struggles or by encouraging people to watch the rest of the week’s programmes on Channel 4, or perhaps simply doing as I will be, engaging in something Ruby mentioned made a difference to her while in The Priory - “hard-core straight to the heart conversation”, the kind that doesn’t just stop at “how are you?” or waiting for your own turn to speak.
We all have mental health and it’s time everyone started talking about it and recognising that at times we all need help and support. Those of us with diagnosable mental health problems and those without, we’re all human. We’re all striving to be recognised as capable, successful and valuable members of society. Having a mental health problem should not be a barrier to any of those things.
Charlotte put it beautifully at the end of the show. “People think that you are weak because you have a mental health problem, most of the people I’ve ever met who have a mental health problem are some of the strongest people I’ve ever known, they’re your doctor, your lawyer, your cleaner… your friend. We’re changing the world, we’re changing nappies, we’re writing business plans and we are making a difference.”
I think that says it all really.