For the last six months, I have been looking to try and get some programmes on mental health and wellbeing, and how people live with it in the UK, onto television. My desire is to connect with real people, look at their daily lives, the treatment on offer, the financial limitations, lack of awareness and the exciting future in terms of diagnosis and recovery. To be clear this article is not coming from a jaded place. I am not licking my wounds over it not happening to date, but I do believe that TV networks are missing the point of mental health, and how it should be portrayed.
A few weeks ago, a channel approached me to take part in an immersive treatment experience. They wanted me and four other 'known people' to undergo exposure therapy, which can be defined as:
'A technique in behaviour therapy used to treat anxiety disorders. It involves the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, to overcome their anxiety and/or distress'
For context, the therapy is recommended to take place over between 8-12 weeks. I have undergone similar therapy in dealing with chronic PTSD, an extreme anxiety illness. Exposure therapy it is not something to be undergone lightly and the reason why it is done gradually and gently, is that if one is exposed too quickly to too much it can create a flood of neurological responses that overwhelm the frontal lobes of the brain. This can cause the brain and body to go into trauma hijack. The results if not monitored carefully, can ultimately lead to such a sense of hopelessness that they turn to suicide.
The concept for the programme was for me to undergo exposure therapy in 24 hours, which has never been done before. Having studied somatic re-experiencing (the same as exposure therapy in its goal) this in my opinion is the most foolish and dangerous thing I have ever heard! I was effectively going to be used as a guinea pig to see what would happen under such extreme circumstances. Guaranteed drama. Guaranteed "jeopardy' - a word that is the go-to place for any celebrity-based programme to maximise ratings.
I decided to call the casting agent, to let them know how appalled I was at this idea, and to make them aware of the dangers of such an undertaking. I also stressed that there is no educational element, but purely sensational - a huge difference. The terrifying thing was that the channel clearly believed this was educational, and it was clear the casting person had no idea what he or she was undertaking... although this was not their fault.
My sadness and frustration is in equal measure, as this is not the only example I have come across. TV networks want to maximise their views, and there is an obsession with 'keeping the audience' by providing an educational element. Mental health isn't exactly Doc Martin, but I am baffled as to how a network can lure in an audience to be 'entertained' by mental health. In my opinion, the networks are missing the point. By hoodwinking an audience into watching sensational viewing they are at best presenting sensationalisation of mental health and at worst failing to educate at all, creating even more shame for people who experience it than they already do.
For me, a conversation about mental health leads to connection. Through my vulnerabilities I connect with others who open up and share about theirs. The connection deepens, and we relate as true humans through all our inner and outer experiences. The shame is replaced by respect, empathy and love. The best way to show how mental health affects people and how we can help is to strip away the sensationalisation and allow people simply to tell their stories. If things are to be experimental then for God's sake do it in a safe way. The upper echelons of networks, the people who are looking to create dramatic are playing a dangerous game without having a grasp on the true facts.
Let people connect with people, that is the power of great documenting. The audience rating may lessen but the power of the message will be greater. Surely that is what educating and learning and healing is about?