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Reappraisal of BBC Three's mental health season: Don't Call Me Crazy / 7 August 2013

I recently ran a critical review of BBC Three's Don't Call Me Crazy season. It received a plethora of comments presenting opposing views, either castigating or applauding the programme makers. I made the mistake of just giving the programme a cursory glance. There is so much exploitative tv relating to a broad range of impairments including mental health, which sets out to manipulate the viewer down the same old path of tragic and brave storytelling.

The usual format is to lead the audience towards making sentimental emotional responses and critical judgements about how terrible / gifted / extraordinary the 'subjects' of the documentary are. The tried and tested approach leaves a taint in the air which tells the viewer how much better off they are being 'normal.'

Having finally watched the second programme in the series (originally broadcast in early July) I changed my mind about Don't Call Me Crazy. What came across, watching it in a reflective state of mind, was the ordinariness and humanity of the young people whose stories were being told.

Because the narrative voiceover was kept to a bare minimum the viewer was able to feel the individuals response to their predicament, without judgement. Yes it is highly distressing and uncomfortable programme-making, but that is the point. What it isn't is entertaining, in the way that the majority of tv documentaries are, that attempt to be 'educational'.

Because of the amount of room given for the people involved to tell their stories, I take back my previous comments about this being voyeuristic television. What Don't Call Me Crazy doesn't project is the usual narrative telling us how lucky we are not to suffer a similar fate because of our inherent weakness or defect. 'Crazy' implies someone or something cannot be explained, but the predicaments presented here are understandable because we are allowed the room to see the world from the viewpoint of the individuals, their families and the Unit staff.

How much opportunity the three girls were given to consent to how they are portrayed, only the programme-makers know, but it's patronising to say that their consent to being filmed was invalid because they are in distress. The support they give to each other through the most harrowing of times is evidence that they aren't 'crazy', but are living through circumstances that would topple most people.

How do you respond, for example, to an individual who refuses to eat because s/he believe, in their heart of hearts, that food is just 'wrong'? What comes across through the support of the other patients and the professionals involved is that a consensual reality is up for grabs. None of us know the truth, because we are all alone and the best we can do is to try to communicate - be it ever so fragile and ever so tentative a thing.

I came away from watching the programme feeling that it had challenged the stereotype that being vulnerable  and in a life threatening state of distress means you aren't equipped for any future quality of life.

BBC Three's mental health season continues this evening with Inside My Mind to be broadcast at 8pm. I shall watch with more of an open mind, this time.