What does My Mad Fat Diary tell us about mental illness?


9:25 am - February 13th 2013

by Huma Munshi    


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To state that there is stigma and ignorance about mental health is an understatement. The media portrayal of mentally ill people is often in the context of extreme instances of violence and social disorder.

This continues to stigmatise mentally ill people and does nothing to raise awareness of their everyday struggles and the work they have undertaken to overcome moments of debilitating mental anguish. It also paints an unbalanced picture to the public. Disabled people are much more likely to be victims of hate crime, rather than being the perpetrators.

This week was a quietly successful day for campaigners that have advocated for this stigma to be challenged via a change in the law. The Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill 2012-13 was passed by both Houses of Parliament and now awaits Royal Assent to enable it to be passed onto the statute.

The aim of the Bill is to reduce the stigma and negative perceptions associated with mental illness. It would repeal legislative provisions that can prevent people with mental health conditions from serving as Members of Parliament, members of the devolved legislatures, jurors, or company directors. It says much about the attitudes towards those people experiencing mental illness that such a law is even required.

The evidence indicates that disability discrimination is rife. The Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into disability hate crime states: “in the worst cases, [disabled] people were tortured, apparently just for fun. It’s as though the perpetrators didn’t think of their victims as human beings. It’s hard to see the difference between what they did, and baiting dogs.”

For people with mental illness the stigma of engaging in anti-social behaviour is a common one in the mainstream media. However, this representation is disproportionate and does not do anything to shed light on the extent to which mentally ill people experience hate crime themselves.

In its response to the EHRC consultation on disability harassment, the mental health charity Mind states: “since one in four people experience a mental health problem during their lifetime, and the vast majority of these people face crime and victimisation, clearly disability-related harassment is a significant problem for people with mental distress.”

In light of all this, and as someone who has personally experienced severe bouts of mental illness, it has been refreshing to watch My Big Fat Diary for people to get a real sense of what it is like to recover from a breakdown.

What I find particularly poignant is the struggle the lead character, Rae, has after her breakdown to rebuild her life and that desperate need we all have to lead a ‘normal’ life. This involves boyfriends and her navigating a complicated relationship with her mother. This is against a backdrop of flashbacks which triggered her mental anguish as well as the snatches of conversation we witness she has with her therapist. The latter is painfully accurate. The therapist gently pushes her to confront her past and that trigger situation which led to her hospitalisation.

I don’t recall watching such an accurate portrayal of mental illness before and I welcome it now in the hope that it raises awareness. I also hope that when the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill becomes an Act of Parliament we can begin to engage in a more fair and open dialogue and process to ensure mentally ill people are not discriminated in public office.

However, remembering that one in four people will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime, it is about time that we begin to properly support those people experiencing depression, anxiety and all the other multiple forms of mental illness that can be so truly debilitating.

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About the author
Huma Munshi is a feminist, trade unionist and occasional writer.
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Reader comments


The show is called “My Mad Fat Diary”, not “My Big Fat Diary”.

I don’t want people suffering from mental health problems to be jurors. The reason is self-evident. If that means I’m labelled “discriminatory”, or “disablist”, so be it.

3. Alisdair Cameron

This reads as well-intentioned,but superficial, and very much a recycling of MIND materials.MIND are okay, as far as they go, but they are but a small part of the mental health “ecosystem”. Stigma is a much more complicated and nuanced issue: it’s not one thing, nor is there one cause or root. many service users have well-founded criticisms of the well-funded,but proprietary (dominated by 2 big charities) anti-stigma campaign, often precisely because it is too superficial,woolly and unfocused. Still, something is better than nothing.
@ b 92). You’re displaying ignorance more than anything else. Theonly thing self-evident is your lack of knowledge. “Suffering mental health problems” is hardly an exact term: how, and why, would you use that as an exclusion criterion? For your information that phrase is not a synonym for lacks capacity, which is the only legitimate exclusion.

4. the a&e charge nurse

[2] ‘The reason is self-evident’ -no, far from it, can you elaborate?

Perhaps you are saying that somebody with a background of depression, say, would be unable to understand the trial process?
By this logic Winston Churchill would not have been fit for jury service, and neither would Stephen Fry.

@ Alisdair Cameron, “Stigma is a much more complicated and nuanced issue: it’s not one thing, nor is there one cause or root”

I completely agree but this piece specifically about the impending passing of the Act of Parliament which at least brings the issue to the fore. Often mental illness is seen as an “invisible disability” and instances of discrimination and harassment are not properly reflected in the hate crime strategies that are developed.

Cuts to NHS provision has targeted already very inadequate service provision. Long-term therapy is hard to come-by and medicalising the issue is seen as a more efficient way to manage the issue to the detriment of the person experiencing the mental illness.

[4]

It is highly likely that the hypothetical person you mention “with a background of depression” would be preoccupied with their own issues, and thus could not give adequate and objective consideration to the evidence in the trial process.

A person’s right to a fair trial is more important than the right of a person with mental illness to act as a juror.

7. the a&e charge nurse

Ruby’s hypothesis – the problems is we can’t kill traffic wardens?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbbMLOZjUYI

I don’t want people suffering from mental health problems to be jurors. The reason is self-evident. If that means I’m labelled “discriminatory”, or “disablist”, so be it.

Whan you say ‘self-evident’ do you mean according to the voices in your head?

As an Aspie I’d rather take my chances with a jury of fellow Aspes: they’re less likely to be swayed by emotional pleas by the prosecution, they’d attend carefully to the details of the evidence and weigh it up in a systematised way, and they’d arrive at their verdict independently of peer pressure from other jurors or the public.

A neurotypical jury would take my pedantic answers as evidence of dissemination and my flatness of affect as a sign I lack empathy.

B @ 6:

“It is highly likely that the hypothetical person you mention “with a background of depression” would be preoccupied with their own issues, and thus could not give adequate and objective consideration to the evidence in the trial process.”

Perhaps, if they were suffering depression at the time of jury service; but then they would be ill and so excused. However, the vast majority of people with a background of depression would be as capable of reasonable and objective consideration of evidence as the average juror.

I don’t recall watching such an accurate portrayal of mental illness before and I welcome it now in the hope that it raises awareness.

In fairness there’s precious little accurate portrayal of neurotypicsls in the media either; fictional characters are created according to ‘common sense’ folk psychology rather than real psychology and act with an unrealistic degree of consistency and free will.

There are quite a few characters with Aspie traits in film and on TV who are recognised as such by other Aspes (check out forums like wrongplanet.net) even where they are not explicitly specified as Aspie: Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory) being an obvious comic example, Temperance Brennan (Bones) being slightly more serious, and Spencer Reid (Criminal Minds) also showing slight signs of comorbidity with schizophrenia.

The three current versions of Sherlock Holmes in film and TV all have Aspergic characteristics (especially Robert Downey Jr).

I’d take any of the above in preference to ‘worthy’ portrayals in Rain Man or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – which seem to be designed to meeet the emotional needs (ah, bless) of non-autistic audiences.

I didn’t realise that my mad fat diary was like that. It is so difficult to find accurate portrayals of mental illness on TV although surprisingly Eastenders hasn’t been that bad with some of twir characters but their portrayal of mental health services is predictably depressing.
Homeland is another US program that includes a woman’s battle with bipolar depression amongst its main storyline that has seemed realistic.
This is an interesting blog.

“and thus could not give adequate and objective consideration to the evidence in the trial process”

If that is your criteria for who should be on a jury then to be logical you should also exclude:

People with an IQ of less than 100
People without relevant academic qualifications where the case involves technical evidence (like DNA….)
People who can’t demonstrate the ability to give something their full attention for several hours a day
People with prejudices towards others (both accused and witnesses could be members of groups that a juror could be prejudiced against)
People with family commitments (can’t have them worrying about their kids during a case…)
Religious people

And so on….

The irony here being that the closest thing to what you have to this process of establishing truth (where you exclude those not qualified) is the peer review that academic papers go through before publication. Something that people with your political persuasion have not accepted in regards to climate change.

If it is true that as many as one in four of us will experience a mental health issue, B’s idea does not only result in a smaller pool of jurors, it also confounds the notion that we should be tried by our peers.

I don’t think the character of Rae in ‘My Mad Fat Diary’ is helpful/realistic. I am 17 and I suffer with anxiety to an extreme extent – I can’t attend college, I can’t attend parties/go to festivals, my friends have lost touch with me and I find it difficult even to go into town. There are plenty of young people with the same problems (and much worse) and some are hospitalised. Regarding therapy, unless you go privately, the best CAMHS can offer is an hour and a half a week. The idea that Rae has the luxury of an hour a day with that skilled, relaxed, jovial therapist is entirely unrealistic (both my parents work with for the NHS).

Also, Rae just has too much fun. It’s saddening for me – it’s like a kick in the teeth. The character has very, very mild symptoms and a lot of regular teenage angst (as do all the other characters). The show irritates me.

That’s a shame Fiona. I’m sorry to hear that. Mental health is the Cinderella of the services. I work in forensic mental health and they get more help there but the care is expensive. For people who suffer from mental illness – who have just started to become ill, it’s such a lottery as to how much help you are going to receive before its almost too late in some cases.

Also, Rae just has too much fun. It’s saddening for me – it’s like a kick in the teeth. The character has very, very mild symptoms and a lot of regular teenage angst (as do all the other characters). The show irritates me.

I don’t think you should expect characters on TV to be exemplars: no two people with disorders are exactly alike so the idea that one character should represent the experience of everyone with that condition is unrealistic. What matters is that there’s some overlap between that character and yourself.

The issue I have with shows like this is that they place mental illness at the heart of the programme when some of prefer a more tangential approach where mental health conditions are part of characters lives rather than defining their lives.

17. Alisdair Cameron

@ Shatterface (16). Absolutely.Normalisation is when a character’s MH is incidental trait,barely commented on.There’s a danger of missing the point with MH and drama and stigma. Need characters with MH but their MH isn’t a plot device or the focus of the narrative.

I think that is exactly why Rae’s character is a very helpful both for people who do not understand mental illness, as well as those that may experience mental ill-health.

It portays a person overcoming mental anguish (such as the flash-backs) and her struggle to disclose her past experiences. But this is part of her character – similar to any of us that are seeking to overcome any type of debilitating illness – and not the entirety of who she is. The fact that she can still find times of joy is also a reflection of the waves of emotion mental ill-health can bring: deep feelings of hopelessness and then feeling some respite.

I think neurodiversity needs it’s Queer as Folk – but it also needs it’s This Life (if you see what I mean).

20. Alisdair Cameron

@Huma (18). Sorry, but when the show’s called “My Mad fat diary” and explicitly centres on mental health,and the expereinces of someone going through the MH system it’s possibly illuminating for some (if done well), and that’s good. But it certainly doesn’t normalise things. Humanises issues,possibly,but still MH is treated as exceptional, and the defining characteristic by which the character is viewed.

Perhaps coming to terms and managing what happened is an ongoing journey for her? To assume it had no impact would be an inaccurate reflection of the experience of severe mental illness. I accept that everyone manages things differently but it DOES have an impact and the fact that people can still manage to live a reasonably ‘normal’ and functional life is a testemant to their strength and resilience.


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