Review of the Documentary shortlist
Posted Friday 16 November 2012
As most readers of this blog will know, Monday (19 November) sees the annual Mind Media Awards, which recognise the best portrayals of mental health in the media. I've been given the privilege of reviewing the five entries short-listed for the 'Documentary' category.
Each one of the programmes provides fascinating insight into the condition experienced, and perhaps even more importantly, they do this respectfully and sensitively. After reading about some truly sensationalist fly-on-the-wall type shows that have been broadcast recently – not to mention the usual stigmatic screeching from the red-tops – it was a pleasure for me to sit down and watch well-made television that treated its subject matter in an appropriately magnanimous way.
I'm not sure which one to start with, so I'll just go in the order that Mind have listed them here.
We Need to Talk About Dad
This Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall follows the story of the Johnsons, whose “sunday supplement family” lives were torn asunder when father Nick suffered a psychotic episode and nearly killed his wife – to make matters worse, the attack was witnessed by the couple's eldest son, Henry.
Rather that focus on Nick's psychosis – which was a sudden and temporary condition brought on severe stress – the documentary looks at the aftermath on all four members of the family. Although Nick and his wife Nicky separated, despite the horrific attack she and he remained friends, and he regularly comes to visit his sons. The younger of the boys, Felix, has largely been shielded from the sheer enormity of what the rest of the family felt, and Henry has been concerned about this for some time.
Feeling that Felix needs to know how traumatised he (Henry) in particular felt after the incident, between them, Henry, Nick and Nicky examine the best way to discuss the enormity of what happened with Felix; here we see the 'we need to talk about Dad' element of the story. The scene where the two boys finally sit down and confront the overwhelming emotions of the attack is difficult to watch due to the palpability of feeling, yet it is moving and shows the bravery and closeness that the brothers share.
In the end, We Need to Talk About Dadis a story of coming to terms with the fact that bad things are sometimes done by good people; those that you love. Although the prognosis for the family is not by any means perfect when we leave them, things do seem more positive for all concerned, ultimately demonstrating that with commitment and love, people can come to terms with horrific familial events.
Art for Heroes: A Culture Show Special
Documentary-maker Tim Samuels (also nominated in the 'Best Journalist' category) meets a number of British ex-servicemen suffering from sometimes very serious military-PTSD, as well as travelling across the Atlantic to meet veterans from the Vietnam and Gulf wards. I found Samuels to be an engaging and sympathetic presenter, who at no point patronised the group nor assumed he knew how they felt (as so many people in my experience of ((non-military)) PTSD) do.
It was at times difficult to watch and listen to the experiences of the sufferers, however. Some described the very graphic, disturbing flashbacks and nightmares of combat they'd gone through; others discussed their hypervigilance, anger and insomnia. All participants in the programme experienced severe social impairment such as an inability to work or the breakdown of a marriage. My heart went out to them as I listened to their harrowing stories.
In many ways Art for Heroes told the story of combat-PTSD – still a condition not taken seriously by many governments – first, and the impact of art therapy second. But if that's a true interpretation of the film, then what an impact that was. Each of the men interviewed categorically advised Samuels that it had a positive life-changing impact upon them, and it was also stated that the therapy had been life-saving.
I'll not get into the minutiae of how art therapy works (you can find plenty of information online), suffice to say that the mechanics work similarly to normal therapy; in essence, getting strong, destructive feelings out of one's system. This sometimes results in some disturbing art from the ex-servicemen, but each consistently feels that the movement of imagery onto canvas and sculpture makes what's in their head easier to cope with.
Samuels meets a neuroscientist who is one of few people to have specifically researched art therapy. Contrary to what I expected, there is actually compelling evidence for the effectiveness of the technique, and against my original expectations, I began to think that I might have been wrong in the cynicism I'd held about the approach. Both the research and the visceral testimony of those that went through it was persuasive evidence.
Samuels, inspired by a museum of veterans' art in the USA, decides to help his British group exhibit their art work. It was touching and inspiring to see the men being recognised and rightly acclaimed in this way, and moreover, the fact that their futures seem much brighter than they'd expected is truly uplifting.
The Trouble With Men: Tonight
Men's rates of depression are notably lower than those of women. Why? Are we really so genetically and/or socially different?
In truth, science isn't certain – but a prevalent theory about this situation is that women report depression more than their male counterparts. In other words, the rates of the condition between the two genders are likely to have no statistical difference: men are just less willing or able to disclose their feelings of darkness and despair.
The Tonight programme capably explores this theory by meeting a number of men that have opened up to experiencing depression. Duncan, a former national rugby player, tells a harrowing story of how he publicly operated for years on a depressed autopilot before, eventually, his coach recognised his weary-worn face and asked what was wrong. Emotional in front of the camera, Duncan admitted to how he completely broke down – eventually realising his need to confront his mental health difficulties head on.
As Duncan acknowledges, though, he had often thought of his depression as a weakness. Sadly, this was not helped by his GP who did not help the situation by telling him to “man up” - a attitude that seems to be prevalent amongst many when it comes to male depression.
Presented Penny Marshall interviews several other men who have now publicly acknowledged having experienced depression. Some of them are now working to provide welcoming settings in which other depressed men can talk and support each other.
Ex-boxer Duke, often taking referrals from Mind, runs a boxing club for fellow-sufferers. Both his service-users and those of the 'It's a Goal!' initiative run by Macclesfield Town Football Club agree that they have found their respective services to provide enormous relief. One man suggested that part of the help of 'It's a Goal!' was that it was “less clinical” than the traditional settings in which one seeks help for a mental health condition.
An astute observation. If society must continue to insist that men subscribe to 'traditionally' masculine behaviour (not my own view, I'd note), then the supposedly macho environments of a boxing or football club make more sense for their treatment for depression than in the pastel-y confines of a therapist's office. Perhaps the NHS should consider such ideas, recognising (as health professionals do in the programme) that men's depression is much more significant than official statistics suggest.
Britain's Biggest Hoarders
An illuminating and sensitive portrayal of a condition that is often, sadly, regarded as shameful, but is instead a deep-rooted and genuine mental health difficulty. The (admittedly controversial) DSM-V, due next year, is likely to include compulsive hoarding as a discrete disorder.
I was surprised to find that this film resonated with me deeply. I once wrote about the full-blown anxiety attack I experienced when my partner tried to merely tidy up and get rid of the rubbish strewing the room, and spoke of my perplexity about this. The trend has continued, to the extent that I've had no choice but to bring it up with my therapist. After watching this documentary, I fear I understand why.
To be clear, I am certainly not one of the UK's 'biggest hoarders' as things stand – but the individuals featured in the documentary are in late-middle age, the apparent time of life when something that has already started insidiously becomes something truly pathological (note, though, that the onset of hoarding is rare after this time). And for the people Jasmine Harman – the documentary-maker – met, that is the stage it had reached for them.
Harman was inspired to meet other compulsive hoarders because her mother, Vasoulla, suffers from the condition. Whilst she threads a narrative of her mother's experiences throughout the programme, she also examines the situations of Alan and Richard.
All three have houses (and, in Alan's case, gardens) that are virtually inaccessible, save for a few small spaces or 'paths' through...well, through stuff, I suppose. In Alan's house, you can't even see – never mind enter – the living room, as he has literally filled it. His wife has only one space in the entire house where she can sit, and the couple cannot regularly see their daughter and grandchildren thanks to the hoard. Richard has formed a path through his home, but is in serious danger of tripping on his stairs thanks to the amount of material that lines it – further, he already suffers from health problems that are not helped by his inability to part with stale food. Both Alan and Richard become defensive when asked to part with some of the material; Vasoulla burst into tears.
To a rational observer, there is no way any of the hoarders could need, use or even know the identity of the overwhelming majority of their hoards, yet they insist that they have use for or specific attachment to each object, piece of paper or even rubbish. This is highlighted dramatically by the triumvirate's sometimes extreme reactions to removing items.
It could be easy to dismiss this condition as nothing more than extreme slovenliness and/or laziness, and that's why I think Harman's examination of it was so important; it clearly shows compulsive hoarding as a complex psychological issue, often routed in historical trauma. She even takes the camera into one of Vasoulla's therapy sessions which, in emotional scenes, successfully highlights the disorder's reality and possible causes.
Freddie Flintoff: The Hidden Side of Sport
Most people who take an interest in mental health or sport – or even those that simply watch the news – probably didn't escape the sad news of Robert Enke and later Gary Speed taking their own lives. If you're a Twitter enthusiast, you might have encountered the likes of Stan Collymore tweeting about living with depression. But did you know that Ricky Hatton, Neil Lennon, Steve Harmison and Barry McGuigan – amongst others – have also suffered from the condition?
I didn't, but Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff introduces us to a range of well-known sports personalities than have battled depression or anxiety, like he himself did.
A stigmatic view of the situation is expressed by Piers Morgan, which made me rage at him (not for the first time): he admitted that during his tenure as a tabloid reporter, he was happy to mock sports stars psychologically suffering because, as people riding the wave of successful, well-paid careers, he felt they had no reason to feel as they did. In fairness to Morgan, this is unlikely to be a view that only he has held (and he claims to have revised the position).
In fact, considering Flintoff and the other individuals' discussions, if anything being in that kind of position contributes to mental health concerns. Imagine being constantly under press surveillance, being pressurised to endlessly excel at your chosen sport, to always have to behave honourably and successfully or accept widespread criticism. Yes, the pay-offs are high – but it can't be an altogether easy life either. Besides, when it attacks, depression doesn't discriminate based on a person's circumstances.
Like the men in The Trouble With Men (and Flintoff's programme is predominantly about men too), Flintoff and those interviewed were, at the worst of their depressive episodes, reluctant to discuss their problems. Comments made by the sportsmen were consistent with that of the other documentary – eg. that depression is a weakness from which a man should not suffer – but also reflected the pressures of their job, particularly when in charge of a team (Neil Lennon experienced the worst of his illness during management, while Flintoff himself suffered most as captain of the English cricket team).
As sportspeople that many people can look up to – not just as celebrities, but as skilled and talented people operating at the top of their game – it is encouraging to see these people speaking openly about mental health. Even more assuring are the efforts some sporting organisations are making to eradicate depression either in or, perhaps slightly paradoxically, through sport. Flintoff travels to Arsenal's training grounds to speak to young people involved in a project there that uses football as a sort of group therapy, a place for depressed adolescents and young men to come together doing something they love. So far, the initiative has seen a lot of success.
All in all, each of the documentaries makes the point in their own way that with adequate supports – whether medication, psychotherapy, non-clinical interventions or simply family or friends – a mental illness needn't be a life sentence. Of course, it's important to recognise that there are some sufferers who will sadly never recover, but whilst being respectful to the entire spectrum of mental health concerns, these documentaries have ably drawn public attention to the fact that people experiencing such misunderstood issues are simply human beings, ultimately not much different to anyone else.
Pandora was last year's recipient of the Mark Hanson Award for New Media. She is retired from her multi-award-winning Confessions of a Serial Insomniac blog but maintains a strong interest in the online mental health community through her co-editorship of The World of Mentalists. The opinions expressed here are her own.
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