Social media has contributed massively to improving our awareness of mental health. The government are on board with anti-stigma campaigns and mental health awareness week, which draw our attention to the importance of broadening the conversation around mental health. We talk a lot about stigma, we talk a lot about anxiety and about depression. But what’s often left out of the conversation is psychosis.
1 in 100 people experience psychosis and most people’s first experience of it is when they’re under the age of 24. Psychosis can be part of different mental illnesses. It can be a symptom of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and personality disorders to name a few. But its prevalence isn’t reflected in mental health awareness campaigns and it’s certainly not given as much public attention as depression and anxiety. This can be damaging, as people with psychosis are made to feel like they can’t talk about their mental illness.
This is what David Harewood talks about in his recent BBC documentary ‘Psychosis and Me’. He first experienced psychosis as a young actor. After a number of years spent in and out of psychiatric wards, he manages to reach a point where he no longer has visions and hallucinations. The programme allows him to trace through this period of his life, which he had previously blocked out. He speaks with his two friends who arguably saved his life, his mum and his psychiatrist.
But there are people who live with psychosis every day, some of whom Harewood meets with in the documentary. Talking openly about their experiences by describing the voices they hear and their visions sadly leads to damaging social and occupational consequences because psychosis is still feared among many.
Too many representations of psychosis in popular culture have contributed to this fear. A recent example that comes to mind is the Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch. The main character experiences hallucinations and delusions; he believes there are external forces controlling him. But the element of audience participation, in deciding the fate of the character, trivialises the delusions and voices that people with psychosis have to battle against. We’re also made to fear the protagonist as his hallucinations get more severe. After the nation watched Bandersnatch, if someone opened up about their own experiences of psychosis they would likely be met with fear, as generated by the film.
Books, film and TV, when approached sensitively, can be powerful and progressive when it comes to our understanding of mental illness. Harewood’s documentary is an example of this. We are positioned alongside Harewood and asked to empathise with and understand the difficulties that many people face. Also, Nathan Filer’s latest book The Heartland is crucial in broadening the conversation surrounding mental health. He tells the stories of individuals affected by schizophrenia to challenge common misinterpretations. Like Harewood’s documentary, he uses individual stories to portray psychosis with honesty and sensitivity – as just another way of being human.
There are support groups across the country for people to talk about their experience of psychosis, for example as part of the Hearing Voices Network. Crucially, this support can prevent people from feeling isolated. In general, it’s clear from the documentary and the book that we all need to play a part in broadening the conversation. The BBC’s decision to incorporate Harewood’s documentary in a series of other insightful accounts of mental health by Alastair Campbell on depression and Nadiya Hussain on anxiety is vital because that’s where conversations start. Since watching the documentary I’ve discussed it with others and implored others to watch it. Decisions like this make me hopeful that we can deepen the conversation around mental health. This way, we will empathise more and make necessary changes to society to stop people from feeling isolated.
‘David Harewood: Psychosis and Me’ is on BBC iPlayer now.
The Heartland: Finding and Losing Schizophrenia by Nathan Filer is out on 6 June.