Even if you’re not a fan of Celebrity Big Brother you’ll likely have heard of Emmerdale actress Roxanne Pallett recently. What happened between her and Coronation Street actor Ryan Thomas was all very difficult viewing. Roxanne’s mental health has been the subject of wide speculation in the media as a result. As a media psychologist and commentator myself, especially with my on and off-screen roles working on reality TV shows such as Celebrity Big Brother among many others, I often get asked to share my views. On this occasion though, I was reluctant to join in the debate.
I feel inherently uncomfortable with the fact that it is becoming quite common to start talking about mental health as soon as someone does something that is seemingly wrong, be it on TV or in the workplace or anywhere else. As soon as someone tells a lie, speaks to someone unkindly, or makes a false accusation we hear people talking about personality disorders and/or post-traumatic stress. It’s as if mental illness is becoming the immediate go-to explanation as soon as someone messes up.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this isn’t sometimes a factor, and I’m sure I’ve suggested as much at some point over my career as a media psychologist, but I think it is at best unhelpful, and at worst, dangerous to make this our number one explanation. It fuels the stigma around mental illness that is already so prevalent. Just because someone acts up, or does something abhorrent, it doesn’t mean they’re mentally ill, and those who do suffer from mental illness are then tarnished by this cultural belief that being ill leads people to misbehave or act in anti-social ways. The vast majority of people with mental illness in my experience, both personally and professionally, behave in entirely appropriate and even very pro-social ways, even though they may be suffering greatly and facing daily personal challenges just to cope with life.
Yes, experiencing trauma in the past, can sometimes lead people to overreact, or be hyper-sensitive to situations that might, by others, be seen to be banal. And yes, some people who suffer from mental illness may behave in ways that are unhelpful to either themselves or others around them. However, it’s also important to remember that sometimes, unfortunately, people do behave inappropriately, or unkindly to one another, or even in entirely mean and nasty ways, and it’s not always down to a problem with their health. Of course, if it becomes a pervasive pattern of behaviour then it might be prudent to consider whether something deeper or more ingrained is at play, but it shouldn’t be our very first suggestion when trying to understand why someone has done something awful. There are wide variety of reasons as to why they might behave as such, sometimes it just works for them.
With regards to Roxanne Pallett in particular, I don’t know why she behaved the way she did. Her claims that she has been victimised in an abusive relationship in the past and that this affected her judgement seem plausible to me. If that is the case then I empathise and have compassion for her, even though it was very unpleasant viewing to see her make the accusation against Ryan Thomas as she did. I do have a great deal of compassion for him. he clearly suffered a great deal of distress in the situation and I hope that he will come through this experience without going on to experience post-traumatic effects himself. The whole affair, in my opinion, was really quite tragic and awful all round. Perhaps if anything good is to come of the whole thing, it is that it has stimulated some discussion around the possible effects of having been subjected to domestic violence in the past. I think this is valuable discussion and a topic worth talking about.