Sex, Lives and Red Tape

Showcasing Life in ‘Bedlam’: Will it Reduce Mental Health Stigma?

Although mental health theory and practice has changed over time, the stigma which surrounds mental health is ever-present. There are a number of fantastic individuals and initiatives which are trying to address and reduce mental health stigma; for example here is a blog I wrote about the Time To Change campaign.

The latest initiative comes from Channel 4 (on UK TV) who are broadcasting a 4-part series called Bedlam showcasing real patient journeys in Britain’s oldest psychiatric institution.

Bethlem Royal Hospital, South London

The word Bedlam can be traced back to 1247 when the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem was established in the City of London. The priory, which became a refuge for the sick and infirm, was known as ‘Bedlam’ and was the earliest incarnation of what is now Bethlem Royal Hospital, part of the South London and Maudsley (SLaM). ‘Bedlam’ also reflects how mental illness has been perceived historically and while treatment has changed dramatically over the past 800 years, stigma undoubtedly still remains. This series wants to help change that. (Source: Ch 4 Press Info)

What do we learn from episode 1 ‘Anxiety’?

1) Anxiety can be problematic

Anxiety is a normal part of life, and most of us can deal with anxious thoughts and feelings. However for some people it can develop into a serious mental health problem which interferes with daily life. This week’s episode focused on a number of patients who had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – which is an extreme form of anxiety. We saw therapy sessions where patients are trying to understand and better deal with intrusive thoughts and feelings. We also heard stories from real patients and learnt about the problems they faced due to their OCD, for example:

James and his mum

  • James, 21, had to drop out of University due to his worsening anxiety . We learnt about the impact his anxieties were having from him and his mum.
  • Helen, 33, told us how her long-term relationship had been damaged, how she hadn’t been to work for two years and had great difficulty leaving the house due to her anxiety.
2) Anxieties are frequently linked to social norms

We learnt about the close links between anxieties and social norms. Simon Darnley (Head of the Anxiety Residential Disorders Unit (ARDU)) discussed how in the 80s there was an increase in anxieties to do with HIV, whereas currently one of the most frequent anxieties is about paedophilia due to the current high levels of media coverage.

This does beg the question – if anxieties are closely linked to social concerns, can not more be done to make the media accountable? Just this past week I was disgusted by the front page of a UK newspaper whose frontpage headline read “1,200 killed by mental health patients”. This statistic was cherry-picked, alarmist and not explained in context.  it wasn’t even a news story as murder rates by people diagnosed with mental health problems have been fairly constant since the 1990s. Yet furthermore, it detracts from the very real fact that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime. This kind of irresponsible media coverage perpetuates myths surrounding mental health, which I strongly feel is irresponsible and unacceptable.

3) Dealing with anxiety is hard work

One of the challenges in dealing with anxiety, which I thought was well illustrated by Bedlam, is the very individual and personal nature of the condition. There is no easy cure or treatment; it takes a lot of perseverence, courage and often the road to improvement is not straight forward. It is ruddy hard work.

Available support is wide-ranging and reaching. Most people are able to manage their anxieties themselves. For many others gaining support by their GP is the first step, and there are a range of pharmacotherapies and talking therapies which can help. For people with extreme anxiety, residential therapy programmes (such as ARDU in Bedlam) can offer invaluable support.  But the truth for anxiety sufferers is that the hard work doesn’t stop when the therapy stops – the hard work often continues through life.

Will ‘Bedlam’ reduce mental health stigma?

Maybe and hopefully. The programme did many things which current academic literature agrees will help reduce mental health stigma; namely talking openly about real experiences, providing education and insight into mental illness, and reaching a mass audience (through the medium of TV).


SLaM reported that the “first programme attracted more than 1.7m viewers… it was the most watched programme at 9pm for 16-34-year-olds and the twitter hashtag #Bedlam trended during the programme.”

This is encouraging; however I do wonder whether the audience was primarily made up of individuals with some experience of mental illness and the challenges therein. Tempted to see if analysis on the #Bedlam tweets would shed any further light on this…

It is great however to see increasing parity of phsycial and mental health on British TV. More please!


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This entry was posted on November 4, 2013 by in Mental Health, Stigma and tagged , , , , , .