Following Channel 4’s efforts to give mental health issues a valuable airing a year or two ago, I’m so glad BBC is doing the same with it’s In The Mind programming. I watched some of the productions – exploring suicide, post-partum psychosis and Fry’s re-visitation of his own bipolar illness. As a psychotherapist rather than a psychiatrist though, I notice how little attention is paid to the non-medical model of these illnesses. While genes and brain chemistry play various and significant roles in mental ill-health, research also tells us – and my/my colleagues experience tells me too – that life experiences also have profound and lasting effects on our psyches.
Fry courageously talked about his suicide attempt while filming in Uganda a few years ago – he tells us it happened in the wake of a bizarre interview with a deeply unpleasant homophobe, combined with terrible jet lag springing from an eye wateringly crazy international schedule. It makes sense to me that these factors could trigger a deep trauma (to put it mildly), but we learn little about how his early experiencing could also have contributed toward such a fragile sense of self. And again, following two women suffering terribly with post-partum psychosis we find out that their bipolar illness is in the background – but little as to any other possible context or environmental factors that could have contributed to a mental disintegration in this way.
Keeping mental illness in the realm of the medical model (ie genes/drugs) worries me for the risk it may play in unwittingly fuelling a stigma – an ‘ill’ or ‘well’ model rather than a more holistic gradation of mental health that we all slide around in. Plenty of people describe living ‘sanely’ yet with obsessive thoughts or even while hearing voices – it’s not as simple as symptom checking. We also now know of the powerful benefits of talking therapies, alongside or instead of drugs, in getting and keeping people well – brain scans back this data up too. Sad not to see more of this on screen, although the respite care at the Maytree suicide retreat conveyed the power of positive healing relationships here.