By Richard Chidwick, posted on 5th November 2013
Mental illness can affect 1 in 4 people. Anxiety is a key form of mental illness that can affect us all, from the young, to the old, to different genders, and to different ethnic backgrounds. Anxiety is often linked with other forms of mental illness such as depression. But anxiety itself is one of the most common forms of mental illness that can affect us.
So it is fitting that the first episode of a new four-part series on Channel Four called Bedlam looks at anxiety in more detail. Bedlam does not focus on the majority of people, but a distinct one percent of all people with anxiety disorders in the country. These are people who suffer from extreme forms anxiety disorders like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), or severe intrusive thoughts. The patients in this episode suffer from intrusive thoughts to such an extent their acute anxiety is having a debilitating affect on their livelihoods.
Bedlam focuses on patients undergoing a rehabilitation programme at the Royal Bethlam Hospital, South London and Maudsley NHS (SLaM), the UK’s oldest psychiatric hospital and looks at how mental health issues affect people today.
In an exclusive interview with Sarah Hall, Media and Communications Manager at SLaM, Sarah was able to help us see the real reasons why such a programme was thought up. Sarah mentions how Amy Flanagan on a visit to SLaM from Garden Productions was: “struck by the endless stream of patients who came into the emergency department with some kind of mental illness – some had bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression, others came with alcohol and drug addictions.”
The main patient that Bedlam focuses on in the first episode is James, a young man who has a fear of defecating himself in public, to such an extent he spends hours in the bathroom making sure everything inside his bowels literally ‘comes out.’ James explains to us in the programme that he has a really, “difficult relationship” with the toilet, it feels “like a monkey on my back,” he says.
James seems like a really likeable young man, he looks trendy, almost like a young Sergio Pizzorno from British rock band Kasabian. However, his OCD, has had such a crushing affect on him, it has affected his mother, who seems at the point of despair with how her son can overcome his disorder. James has also dropped out of University and has had his livelihood seriously affected by his extreme anxiety.
James also suffers from the onset of his anxiety and intrusive thoughts to such an extent that he thinks he is a paedophile. He talks of ‘a black smudge inside his head, a bully,’ that reduces him to a terrible state of worry and paranoia.
At one point in the programme we see James on his return to his family home for Christmas. His mother tells us that James watched an Alfred Hitchcock documentary that portrayed Hitchcock, (one of James’ heroes) as a womanising letch, and this makes James go into a frantic state of anxiousness, thinking he was a paedophile.
One point of the interview with Sarah Hall I wanted to find out was why Bedlam focuses on James to such an extent, rather than the other patients in the programme. Sarah said: “James arrived on the unit with his mother and early on he said he was happy to be filmed and his mother supported that – both wanted to show other people what living with severe OCD and intrusive thoughts was really like.”
“James was on the unit for 12 weeks and in that time he improved remarkably and through therapy was taught how to manage his illness. We thought it was important to show him and his family confronting the illness – which sometimes made for uncomfortable viewing – as well as show his positive recovery process,” added Sarah.
James overcomes his fear of soiling himself by coming to terms with his own illness, and seeing it for what it really is, and so he overcomes his personal daemons through therapy. To that end having watched programme, viewers who may have gone through their own experiences of anxiety know they can overcome them as well. 1 in 6 young people can suffer from anxiety, so James’ situation can help other youngsters battle their daemons.
What really grabs our attention in Bedlam is this one off opportunity to see into an establishment that we would never normally get to see. The patients Helen, James and Aaron suffer from rare and eccentric behaviour, but we can relate to them in some way. We all suffer from intrusive thoughts like they do, but not to the same extent. Most of us can deal with them and they only affect us when we are in a particular situation. For instance Simon, head of Anxiety Disorders at SLaM points out that we all encounter ‘weird stuff’ in our minds, and these can include intrusive thoughts.
Simon talks about an impulse he has experienced when driving to work wanting to run over children, as they cross a zebra crossing on their way to school, with a lollipop lady in tow. This is what the programme for me successfully shows, that we all have weird thoughts from time to time, but we can overcome them and resist the impulse to act on them. I was also very impressed by the patients’ willingness to be filmed in such an intrusive way, to open up to the world at their most vulnerable and extreme.
Jasper Rees in his review in the Telegraph on Bedlam asks the question: “What is behind an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? You never quite found out.” I think what Rees is trying to grasp at with this point, is that you never quite found out why Aaron for example has to open and close draws so many times, and why his OCD is so extreme. While Rees has a point here I feel the overall aim of the programme was as Sarah Hall points out: “To show people the daily and often terrifying reality of living with severe anxiety and OCD. The aim of the programme is the same as the overall aim of the series; to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness, help to break down stigma and enable members of the public to see how much therapy and psychiatry has evolved over the years.”
I thought Bedlam was really insightful, and showed viewers the terrible situations some people go through. Even at the limits of our extreme thoughts or situations, they can be overcome. Bedlam successfully lived up to its objectives and showed us how anxiety disorders can be dealt with and defeated.
Thank you to Sarah Hall at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust for taking part in the interview.
For more information about Bedlam visit: