TRIGGER WARNING Mentions anorexia, mental health, and the misunderstandings around it. Do not read if in an unsafe place emotionally. A link to the first episode ishere, and available for download.
Let me ask you a question. Out of the two following people who would you feel most sympathy for? A person learning to walk again after an accident and taking 10 steps in 20 minutes, or a girl who managed two sips of a food supplement drink in 20 minutes?
I would bet that there would be some people who would say the former. They would say the first person had an accident, the second one did it to themselves.
This is exactly the kind of attitude and being frank prejudice which “Don’t Call Me Crazy” has been commissioned by BBC Three to address.
We are introduced to 3 of the McGuinness Adolescent Mental Health Unit in Manchester.
We meet Beth who, at the time of filming has anorexia and self harms. We also meet Gill who is an extreme self harmer, is described as volatile and as we see over the course of the first episode of Don’t Call Me Crazy needs to be restrained by several members of staff at regular intervals.
Lastly we meet Emma, who charts her struggles with OCD in the course of filming.
You can see here too that the staff are walking a fine line between exercising compassion and understanding the reasons that have brought them to a psychiatric unit, and a desire to maintain the physical health and ultimately help them recover.
In fact the values of the McGuinness unit embody those sadly lacking in society. The patients provide mutual support to one another, as can be seen when they play a game tying each other together with bandages. In this game they have to depend on each other in order that they can move at the right time. We can see that they trust each other and this is heartwarming when you think society has probably rejected them due to their mental health problems.
As Claire one of the senior staff nurses on night duty puts it;
“I often get asked, do you lock them in their bedrooms? No we’re a hospital; we’re nurses. These are just young people going through adolescence which I think is a form of madness at the best of times with a few extra problems on top.”
Educational opportunities and therapy within the unit also provide opportunities for self reflection. To me, the young people at the McGuinness unit seem very clued up about their own mental health, in fact more clued up than the average member of society.
This inside knowledge also means that young people are acutely aware of the stigma surrounding mental health. They talk of how people appropriate their experiences by saying things like “I like things clean, I’ve got OCD!”
However well-meaning such a strategy is misguided. Liking cleanliness is natural. Cleanliness and compulsions mutating into obsessions is not.
For these young people mental illness is debilitating and a hard road. They also talk of the pain they feel at having to justify their mental illness to people which I believe to be and abhorrent thing to have to do. As Emma puts it so eloquently “you wouldn’t ask somebody why they have a cold [and suggest] there’s no reason for them to have it. Nobody should have to do justify their mental illness to anybody. Everyone with a mental illness should be treated with compassion, love and understanding. Yet, I am also acutely aware that the world does not work on the bases of this credo tragically.
Emma contends also that the staff interfering with the belongings in a bedroom will result in something bad happening to her mother. This is how debilitating mental illness can be. It is almost rationalised irrationality.
We then see Beth battling with her body. She could not at the time of filming see that there was something wrong. She resisted intervention even sneaking a Diet Coke into the unit to supplement meals. Saying “just eat!” Is simply not appropriate here. It won’t work and will most likely fall on deaf ears.
Eating disorders are not about food and weight but instead about the feelings food engenders. If your life feels out of control, or going through a period of intense emotional upheaval then food may feel like the only thing you can control. Some people call anorexia ‘the ED voice.’
It’s one of the worst things in the world. It will teach you that everything is always right but the world is in fact wrong. When in the grip of anorexia people believe that not eating will solve problems. Real feelings are endlessly substituted for the word ‘fat’ because real feelings at times feel too painful to face.
When I asked you at the opening of this article which person you felt more sorry for, Beth was the girl I had in mind. The reality of course is that both should be felt sorry for. For it is just as hard for somebody with an eating disorder or recovering to take the first few sips of a meal supplement drink as it is for someone to learn to walk after an accident.
She is matter of fact, showing her lack of food intake as a positive, after remarking that (paraphrasing) a combination of methods are needed to achieve weight loss. This intellectual discourse is a way of distancing from emotional pain.
We should promote greater sensitivity around mental health problems. It pisses me off that in 2013 so many people still don’t get it. That’s why I for one am glad the McGuinness unit opened its doors to television cameras in order to allow fiction and fact to be separated out.
If support and understanding is lacking in mainstream society, it is definitely not lacking in the McGuinness unit. You can see plainly that the place despite the pain is full of love. Patients support each other, transcending the boundaries of their own illnesses to offer unselfish and unconditional support.
You can see this in evidence from the time Gill absconded, through to the collective sadness when somebody leaves. When something happens to one person, it has a domino effect on everybody causing ripples of upset.
There is true community here. It is not the real world but a microcosm of it and when you are segregated from society for your own safety it is all you have. Having lived in communal environments I can appreciate this myself.
What happens there matters. It is keenly felt by all patients. They cannot go anywhere else if they want to get better. There are professionals who care who understand and who want to help.
I don’t think any of the people featured in the first episode or any of the show I am sure are mad or crazy. They are human. If you think otherwise the I put it to you that maybe it is you who needs your head examined.
I’d just like to finish with an anecdote of my own. I was at university I had just been diagnosed with depression, and I was walking home from my GPs surgery in my wheelchair.
I lived opposite a psychiatric hospital. The weather was very cold and there was snow on the ground. I saw three girls walking out of the hospital, probably patients.
“Merry Christmas”, they called. Now it wasn’t even Christmas but I needed a smile so laughed at the absurdity of the situation. They asked me if I was okay and gave me a hug each of them. A long one.
A mental health hug as I like to call it. They are longer than average and seemed warmer and more sincere than the polite social gesture. Fruit loops, my carer muttered. I argued with them when we got back. Those girls did more for me in five minutes after a tough doctor’s appointment that most people do in a lifetime. The irony of mental health problems is that those with them are often the most compassionate in my experience. Maybe we can all learn something from that.
NB I shall be blogging on the following two episodes also.