Channel 4 Goes Mad (and maddens)

Ilona Burton

Untitled 18 300x197 Channel 4 Goes Mad (and maddens)Channel 4’s Mental Health season, the controversially titled ‘4 Goes Mad’ kicked off last night with ‘Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions’.

Juggling replying to work emails (leave early on Mondays for therapy), munching down my dinner whilst watching the programme, scribbling notes and keeping track of several Twitter feeds could, I would argue, be described as ‘mad’.

My A-level psychology teacher was one of those annoying, but lovely people who would describe far too many things as ‘random’ and, on our first day of sixth form, introduced herself as “Mad Ruth”. She would go on to teach us about Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment and invite us to act it out using spinning desk chairs as props, laughing hysterically and saying, “I’m mad, me!” We cringed.

Mad, as I’m sure you’re all aware, can mean a plethora of different things in different situations:

  1. mentally deranged; insane
  2. senseless; foolish ⇒ a mad idea
  3. often foll by at (informal) angry; resentful
  4. foll by about, on, or over; often postpositive wildly enthusiastic (about) or fond (of) ⇒ mad about football, football-mad
  5. extremely excited or confused; frantic ⇒ a mad rush
  6. temporarily overpowered by violent reactions, emotions, etc ⇒ mad with grief
  7. (of animals)
    1. unusually ferocious ⇒ a mad buffalo
    2. afflicted with rabies
  8. See like mad
  9. See mad as a hatter

When Channel 4, alongside Time to Change, a campaign run by Mind Charity and Rethink Mental Illness announced that they has commissioned a series with the aim to tackle mental health stigma, you could almost sense a collective applause amongst its would-be audience. About time, people thought. We all know that an enormous part of the way in which Mental Health issues are perceived by people is influenced by the way they are portrayed in the media. Charities put out guidelines and are always there to assist in production, with scripts, storylines and outcomes – but it feels too often that they are ignored or sidelined and themes become sensationalised and/or simplified. With this announcement came a timely reminder that TV channels and the production companies providing the documentaries and series’ need to take responsibility and reflect reality.

The decision to take action was positive; challenging stereotypes and encouraging people to tackle stigma. It felt powerful and proud. The problem, however, came with the title, ‘4 Goes Mad’. Immediately, people were split; there were those who thought the title was a fun play on words, a catchy and well-thought out PR move, and there were those who saw that ‘mad’ word as a descriptor for people with mental illness as offensive, degrading and downright wrong. A couple of examples:

“If Channel 4 were to do a feature on developmental neurological disorders, I’m reasonably confident they wouldn’t call it 4GoesSpastic.”

“I love the title. Surely the word ‘mad’ is only offensive with the connotations behind it; isn’t that just as ignorant? The wording is genius.”

I did notice early in last night’s programme that the wife of Johnny, one of the case studies, described their son as ‘mad’, endearingly.

I can see both sides. As someone who has experienced mental illness, I’m not personally offended whatsoever, but I’m also not easily offended in the slightest; a title would have to be censored before I found it upsetting – but I’m not everyone. I can see how people thought this title went the opposite direction from the intention and actually added to the stigma. But to me, in this context, the word ‘mad’ quite appropriately sums up the utter chaos, the illogical thinking and the constant contradictions that make up mental illness; it IS madness.

Either way, it certainly got people talking weeks before the first instalment was screened. The title – sexy or sadistic – worked.

‘Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions’ took the comedian and self-confessed poster girl for mental illness on two separate journeys; 1) Back to the Priory, a magnificent building where she met and interviewed the experts who treated her own depression and 2) Tackling stigma in the workplace – 1 in 5 people lose their job when their boss discovers they have MH problems. Ruby encouraged three rather well-to-do people to ‘come out’ and disclose their mental illnesses to their employers and colleagues – a stunt which at times begged the question ‘What if the cameras weren’t there?’

Again the audience was split (at least on Twitter) – pretty much straight down the middle. On one side, pleased, relieved and encouraged that this was finally being spoken about. This group saw Ruby as a role model, a brave woman doing a great job of letting people know that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. They praised her and everyone involved for tackling a subject that is too often not spoken about, even to our nearest and dearest. On the other side, viewers felt that the whole thing was not gritty enough, didn’t portray the full, raw picture of the inner turmoil that goes hand in hand with mental illness and only scratched the surface of the true reality. One suggested Ruby was “self-indulgent”, whilst others squirmed at the lack of even a nod to those people who end up sectioned on insufficiently staffed NHS psychiatric wards, or worse, with no access to mental health services at all (apart from a mention that according to Mind, 75% of people with a mental illness go untreated) – but that’s a whole other season.

A few examples of reactions on Twitter:

YoungMindsUK “Seems to be a general agreement that Ruby’s experience is totally atypical because of her private treatment.”

“Are they gonna delve into less accepted, *far* more demonised conditions such as schizophrenia on here? Or just tiptoe around ‘em?”

“Can’t help but feel that the programme romanticised living with mental health somewhat.”

At first glance, I was one of those having a bit of a moan about Ruby taking us on a Cribs style tour of the stunning backdrop that is the Priory – but again, scrape under the surface, the pristine bedrooms and serene landscapes, and those patients (or service users, or mad people; whatever you want to call them) are suffering from the same desperate thoughts and feelings as anyone else with depression or schizophrenia, eating disorder or bipolar. Stripped down, this was about people on personal journeys, not their bank balances, material possessions or private health insurance. Sometimes, we’re too quick to judge.

Another issue that many people voiced concern about was that in both tone and content, the impact that mental illness can have on people was skimmed over or not addressed at all. They felt that it was oversimplified and overlooked the fact that many people with mental health issues can’t function to an employable degree. If this was a more general documentary about mental illness, then I too would be aggrieved that we only saw the stories of those who were functioning in full or part time employment, but this programme set out to tackle stigma in the workplace, and that’s what it did (a bit too softly for my liking, but there you go.) It did do its job.

The opening night of ‘4 Goes Mad’ was always going to be one which would be met with some degree of criticism. I think it is a huge step forward for the channel and I hope that other channels follow suit. It has got people talking, it did get people opening up about their own experiences and pledging to help spread awareness themselves. Like it or not, it dealt with mental health issues in the workplace on a simple scale – and that is sometimes what a general audience wants and needs. Personally, I had hoped that Channel 4 would have had the balls to be a bit more gutsy, challenging and really knuckled down into the nitty gritty – but this wasn’t a Cutting Edge film, so perhaps wanting it to be something it’s not is just a waste of time; we should applaud it for what it was.

I’m sure Mad Ruth will have loved it.

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  • Guest

    Disappointing sensationalist tripe.
    Do any other middle-aged people remember when Channel 4 was still worth watching?

  • padraigcolman

    “the increasingly controversially titled ‘4 Goes Mad’” That
    is very painful writing. I suppose she
    is trying to say the title was controversial and more people are now
    complaining about it.

    I do remember when Channel 4 was the only channel worth
    watching. That could be a false memory or senile dementia on my part.

  • Robin Saxby

    One of the reasons I no longer own a TV thus having to pay for a license…

  • As_expected

    I’m afraid I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I suspect the experience of a high-profile ‘celeb’ sufferer would be far different to those at the bottom of the food chain, living at the mercy of the DWP.

    I did see a trailer for another show with the laudable aim of testing employers’ reactions to mental illness amongst potential employees. The trailer referred to some participants as those ‘declared mad’. Is there a formal certificate, because I fear mine may have been lost in the post.

  • FleaHop

    C4 docs appear to be, more and more, directed towards those viewers just graduating from BBC3 but this one had some depth to it. Having Ruby Wax host it rang warning bells, and there were moments of inappropriate shtick, but on the whole she gave the show just the right amount of gravitas.
    As an untreated sufferer of depression since I was an early teenager, and being trained as a clinical psychotherapist I know the danger signs, the programme made me laugh and cry. There you go…you lot are the first to hear that!

  • Tim J

    As far as I’m concerned, using the title “4 Goes Mad” for a season about mental illenss is on the same level of appropriateness as using the “N word” for a series about minorities—i.e. it’s utterly inappropriate.

  • Naomi

    I have to admit I am on the side of the fence that says ‘mad’, when used in the way that I have seen in trailers for this Channel 4 season, seems inappropriate and quite prejudiced in itself. When you start throwing around statements about people being ‘declared mad’ you’re making your point very clearly. 4GoesMad, Mad Confessions, Worlds Maddest Job Interview – the last one of which utterly annoys me. The premise for this particular show is tantamount to some mix in a pot of game show vs reality TV. Guess the mental illness sufferer? It’s trivialising in it’s very nature. The world is full of intelligent people and from what I’ve seen, it is usually the most intelligent that can be seen to be the most prejudiced, so how about we all stop dumbing down the messages we need to get across and put forward a half-decent, well-researched programme that really DOES tackle the stigma and prejudices of mental health issues? Channel 4 may feel that their use of the media to get the ‘controversy buzz’ going is clever and going to up the ratings and no doubt it will, but if what people have to suffer through is insipid and watered down then what is the point? Of course, unfortunately, they’re also likely to alienate a large chunk of people and have them actively turning off – I certainly won’t be watching any of the ‘4Goes..’ season despite the fact that it is a subject matter very dear to my heart.

  • Rhi Oh’Dear Nichol

    I found the interview one interesting, but i don’t know much about mental health so maybe it was more suited for those who don’t. I can see people’s point of views on the wording though, it remains something I’m unsure of personally.

  • TreeTops Counselling

    Reducing stigma is to be applauded by all – the percentage of clients I have worked with over the years who refuse any form of medication is high which when explored is usually due to stigma of what the medication actually represents.Which of course is only one area.
    What concerns me is once the stigma is reduced – what happens next – potentially there may be a substantiated increase of need for services and as The Mental Health debate in June has identified there is not enough services now.

  • J C

    Ref. ‘Mad’; I think we all felt the same, but the surprising good news is that
    people have been drawn to watch these programmes because of the titles
    including ‘mad’.
    This is key, as so much great anti-stigma work has so
    little effect because it is only seen by those who are already in or
    connected to the mental illness community.
    The challenge is to impact
    society ‘outside the gehetto’.
    I think we need “An Inconvenient Truth’
    film about mentally ill people coping well with life.

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