Jess Thom, who has Tourettes Syndrome, has never set foot in a psychiatric hospital, but BBC Three’s new documentary Don’t Call Me Crazy, made her wonder how her involuntary movements and noises would be managed if she did.
The programme introduces us to patients and staff at the McGuinness Unit in Manchester, one of the largest teenage mental health inpatient units in the country.
The unit treats young people with a broad range of mental health conditions including eating disorders, psychosis, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Although it’s a mixed unit, the first episode concentrates exclusively on the stories of three young women.
I’ve struggled to work out what I think about the programme. Like the stark white walls in the unit, it left me feeling strangely blank. At times I felt entirely unsure about the programme’s purpose but some moments were incredibly powerful. One that stood out was when 15 year old Emma, being treated for OCD, interjected in a conversation with her mum and said: "Can I just say something though? OCD doesn’t define who I am. Alright I’ve got it, but I like music, I like playing the guitar, I like bands, I like the colour yellow, I like chocolate. But I don’t like all them things because I’ve got OCD. I like all them things because I’m Emma. It doesn’t define me as a person. Just because I’m going through it right now and it’s a part of me right now it doesn’t define me.’
This was a sentiment to which I could strongly relate, as I’m sure many other people living with a disability will too.
It was Emma’s experience of OCD that resonated most with me. While I have never been diagnosed with the condition, I do have some obsessive behaviours which were most pronounced during my early teens. My family got used to the sound of me repeatedly checking the smoke alarm late at night, though perhaps they were less aware of the hidden thoughts and compulsions I was struggling to reason myself out of.
What I remember from this time, beyond the compulsions themselves, was my worry about openly discussing what I was experiencing. I felt embarrassed and frightened by my behaviour, and my biggest worry was about being noticed, exposed or challenged by others – fears that were touched in the programme.
Although I said I’d never been in a psychiatric hospital, I have worked in the Community Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. I know the intense pressure many of these services are under and have watched with frustration as young people in urgent need of therapeutic interventions have sat on long waiting lists without support. It made me wonder whether earlier intervention might have made a difference to the experiences of the young women featured in this documentary.
Crisis was a recurrent theme and the blare of the panic alarm punctuated the programme from end to end. While many of the staff seemed to understand the difficulties faced by the young people and were committed to helping them, there were nonetheless some very distressing moments.
During one particularly shocking sequence, a young woman was shown being restrained face down in a corridor. While I’m familiar with the need for physical intervention, both from a professional and personal perspective, the sight of a vulnerable teenager being held face down on the floor was distressing.
The mental health charity MIND has just published a report calling for an end to this dangerous practice and watching this, it’s easy to understand why. My tics could easily be misinterpreted as threatening behaviour and I wondered how long it would take before I found myself face down if I were in a unit like this.
For me, the most important and interesting aspect of this programme was hearing the young women explaining in their own words the challenges they were facing.
My hope for the rest of this series is that the voices of people experiencing mental ill health don’t get lost in the pursuit of a dramatic story and that instead they are given the space to increase awareness and open minds.
·Don't Call Me Crazy is on BBC3 on Monday 24 June at 9pm. It's the first in a season of films looking at a range of mental health issues affecting young people in Britain today, from schizophrenia, OCD, eating disorders and self-harming to dealing with family members affected by mental ill health.