Bedlam: a humane perspective on mental health

David Bowden

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Recently, the unedifying nature of public debate around mental-health issues has become starkly apparent. Back in September, the decision of Asda and Tesco to sell tasteless ‘mental patient’ Halloween costumes provoked a campaign led by celebrity campaigners Alastair Campbell and Stan Collymore, leading the supermarkets to swiftly remove the outfits from sale. A few weeks later The Sun newspaper created further uproar with a shrill headline declaring ‘1,200 killed by mental patients’.

While well-intentioned, such campaigns can often be unhelpful. As Ken McLaughlin argued on spiked at the time, interpreting these issues through the prism of personal offence tends to obscure rather than clarify the public understanding of the topic. Amid the enormous complexities of the discussion, we find ourselves simultaneously told to view ourselves as at risk of vaguely defined mental-health issues, and yet damned for not differentiating well enough between the different conditions.

Channel 4 are to be commended, then, for new series Bedlam, which sheds a clear light on the topic of mental health. Filmed at Europe’s oldest psychiatric hospital, the Bethlem Royal Hospital in South London (‘Bedlam’ being its original nickname), the series follows in the genre of other shows such as One Born Every Minute and 24 Hours in A&E, offering a fly-on-the-wall insight into the goings on of the institution.

It differs from those shows, however, in that it eschews the jaunty celebrations of the public-sector ethos or simple heart-warming voyeurism in favour of an admirably clear-eyed and humane examination of the challenges experienced in such institutions. Importantly, it properly humanises its subjects, encouraging us to empathise with a diverse selection of patients. Similarly, it treats the doctors and nurses as actual professionals, simply getting on with their jobs, rather than cloyingly elevating them to the status of national heroes.

Each episode deals with the different categories of mental disorder. In the first episode we meet those suffering from chronic anxiety: including drama student James, whose obsession with being unable to control his bowel movements can see him locked in the bathroom for hours; and Helen, who was so terrorised by her irrational urge to commit acts of violence against strangers (often involving a wheelie-bin) that she hasn’t left the house in two years.

Both conditions are absurdly funny in their own ways – which the programme didn’t shy away from – but such interviews are also laced with a deep sadness. This was all the more poignant because both subjects were otherwise able to reflect on the absurdity of their thoughts, but nevertheless in-thrall to them. Things finished in an upbeat mood with James, who made had taken genuine steps forward, but the same story sadly wasn’t necessarily true of Helen. Nevertheless, causes for optimism are to be found even in the saddest cases due to the extraordinary moral character presented by all of those struggling to recover or simply manage their extraordinary conditions.

Although no strangers to self-congratulation, Channel 4 should enjoy the plaudits for Bedlam which is shaping up to be a genuinely thoughtful, insightful and important documentary series.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked. He is chairing the Battle Satellite debate ‘All change in arts funding: crisis or opportunity?‘ at London’s Cockpit Theatre on Thursday 14 November.

Watch Bedlam on 4oD.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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