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BBC Horizon: How mad are you?

(and how judgemental am I?)

Earlier this month BBC2 aired a two-part Horizon special about mental illness called ‘How mad are you’. For those who didn’t see it, it focused on a group of 10 people, 5 of whom had a diagnosed mental illness and 5 who had never had any mental health problem. The idea was that three psychiatrists would study the group as they performed various tasks over the course of a few days, and then decide who fell into which group and diagnose them accordingly.

The programme created a discussion within our Message Board and I received some emails from people asking me what I thought of the programme. I found it difficult to respond because I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, and because it made me question my own perceptions and judgements.

Interestingly, the psychiatrists only diagnosed two of the ‘contestants’ correctly, but I think the whole experiment was slightly flawed. For a start, diagnosis of a serious mental illness usually takes some time, but the psychiatrists only had 5 minutes to speak with their chosen 5. In addition, the people in question had all been assessed beforehand as suitable to take part – they were people in control of their illnesses or, in some cases, in complete recovery. However, a positive outcome was that the show highlighted the often very fine line between health and illness, and proved that with the right help and / or medication, people with a serious illness can live a normal life.

So why did I question my own perceptions? It was because of the man who the psychiatrists diagnosed as healthy, but who turned out to have Bi-Polar Disorder. In my mind, I had already put him into the ‘mentally ill’ category. Why? Because I noticed scars on his arm.

I’m uncomfortable that I judged this person based purely on those scars – clearly the psychiatrists either didn’t notice or didn’t make assumptions that they were self-inflicted. And yet I saw those scars and immediately decided this man must be one of the five. I have tried to justify my assumptions by accepting that as I knew five of the people were ill, and that as I know self-injury is often used as a coping mechanism by people with mental ill health, it is acceptable to put the two together in this case.

However, I must also accept that had it just been a group of 10 random people on any other reality show, I would not have assumed the man had a mental illness just because of his scars. Self-injury is a coping mechanism, but it is not in itself an illness, and it does not necessarily indicate that any mental illness is present. It could have been just as likely that this man had never had any mental health problems.

At the end of the programme the man talked briefly about his self-harm and how it helps him cope with his illness, but I wasn’t pleased with myself for being right. I was angry with myself for making assumptions based on a few scars.

What do you think? As always, your comments are appreciated.

More information about the programme can be found at BBC’s Headroom.

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