Like many of us, I’ve been gripped by the BBC six-part thriller Bodyguard, featuring Richard Madden’s exceptional performance as DS David Budd. This is a character that takes us to another level in terms of portraying the impact that trauma can have on a person’s life and career. We see a relatable, compassionate man who can function in his role even whilst experiencing profound distress that at one point leads him to make an attempt on his life.
The fact is that mental ill health can be complex, and many portrayals are very simplistic or sterile. But Bodyguard shows that we are ready to see nuanced portrayals of mental health problems in our TV dramas – especially where there is a longer character arc that allows us to see and explore the complexity.
So how did the writer Jed Mercurio achieve this?
Suicide very rarely results from a single factor, although there may be a triggering event that overwhelms the coping mechanisms a person has in place. In Bodyguard, the death of the character Julia Montague is the event that leads to DS Budd’s suicide attempt. But the first three episodes unfold for us the scale of the further challenges Budd faces – not just his PTSD relating to his service in Afghanistan but also multiple threats to his children, the collapse of his marriage, and pressure to compromise the code of ethics that hold him upright.
Lots of commentators have asked why Julia Montague died in episode three. My answer is that as well as creating massive interest, it meant the next three episodes could show Budd move personally though a process of realisation to seeking and accepting help. Rather than waving a magic wand and solving everything, we were left with the suggestion that he is on the road to recovery, with hope for the future.
Whilst the events portrayed aren’t ones most men experience – the themes of facing failure, smiling and playing with our children whilst collapsing inside, and putting on our work face are things many men experience. There was a lot about DS Budd that men could relate to. I’m no soldier, but there were things in that performance that got me thinking on my state of mind.
Budd shows a lot of the symptoms and signs of post-traumatic stress disorder – without it being unrealistic to suggest that he might be able to carry on doing his job. Yes, we see Budd experience flashbacks, we see him dissociate and lose track of where he is and what he’s doing. We see him startled into a violent fight or flight response after being surprised whilst asleep. We see his blunted emotional response to the death of a colleague. We see him drinking to excess to help manage stress and achieve sleep, and we see the impact on his relationships at home and at work.
Importantly, we don’t hear the detail of his traumatic experiences or see the flashbacks. We don’t see what happened and we don’t need to. It means we don’t subconsciously judge whether what he went through was ‘bad enough’ to justify the reaction we see. This is very important because the response people have to trauma doesn’t necessarily correlate to the ‘severity’ of the traumatic event experienced. Our guide on the impact of traumatic events on mental health has more information.
It is very hard to reach out for help – especially when you have a lot to lose. The meaning he derives from his job is clear – it’s the glue that is keeping him going, even when his family and personal relationships start to disintegrate. The reality is that many people come to work and perform well even when very distressed. Our research shows that nearly half of people who’ve had a mental health problem in the past five years have come to work whilst experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings.
Because most of us work, we need workplaces where we can be open about things we are going through – whether that’s work-related, health-related, or life-related. It also means creating a culture of compassion and authenticity. Line managers are key – it turns out Budd’s manager wasn’t very supportive, especially when colleagues brought their concerns to her – but, in general, managers need more support and time to know their people as people, so they can spot concerns. Our guide to looking after mental health at work has some useful tips.
We know that only half of people with mental health problems will disclose them at work, and our research has shown that 74% of Brits have been stressed to the point of being overwhelmed this year. Suicide is a leading cause of death for British men – a public health crisis which we are now starting to address.
Many workplaces offer support in terms of employee assistance programmes and occupational health services that can allow us access to quick, free and effective advice and counselling, but these services are often underused, or stigmatised. We need more, and better access to in-work support, and better NHS services – including trauma-informed services for those who need specialist support.
Anyone affected by these issues should call Samaritans on 116 123 or Combat Stress on 0800 138 1619