Media and Mental Health Stigma: An Interesting Encounter

Back in April 2012 I saw an advert entitled ‘Channel 4 programme on stigma attached to mental health in the workplace seeks participants’. I responded to the Channel 4 advert regarding the making of this programme on mental health stigma and employment as I thought it looked interesting, and a couple of days later I had a phone call from somebody from the Channel 4 production team.

I found myself feeling quite cynical whilst speaking to the Channel 4 guy. First, due to what I perceived as his worrying ignorance of the English mental health system and law-he was making a documentary about stigma and mental health for God’s sake!

He asked me for details of my mental health history and I told him that I had been detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act (MHA) 2007 back in 2009. His question following that was: ‘Was that voluntary?’ I nearly fell off my chair but I managed to restrain myself from saying something offensive to him about his ignorance. I only said that when you are detained in hospital under the MHA, you are there not voluntarily but compulsorily!

Second, the Channel 4 guy said that for the purposes of the programme the production team would select 4 people with ‘diagnosed’ mental health problems and 4 without such problems, and my understanding was that they were trying to somehow represent (my emphasis) the population of mental health service users through these 4 people! I thought and said, ‘Hang on a minute…even with the best intentions, you will not be able to achieve representation and take into account all the parameters of diversity – age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level, to mention but a few!’

Third, I  felt that the Channel 4 guy I was talking to (although most probably he had experienced the pain of discrimination and racism- he must have been an Asian guy judging from his name) had an irritatingly casual style when he was asking me for details about my mental health history- things that are very sensitive and painful. I don’t mind talking about these things; I have talked about them to mental health professionals at nauseum but also publicly in research seminars and other talks, so I am used to talking about them and do not necessarily need people’s sympathy or empathy. But I still found the guy’s casual style insensitive and rather disrespectful and inconsiderate. I guess the casual style may have been a kind of defence that detached from painful content and hence protected. On the other hand, my friend who has worked for the BBC says that the casual style of media people is mere callousness.

A very interesting encounter with a media person this phone call. He said he would have to take what I told him to somebody senior in the production team and a process of selection for the programme would be followed.  I did not hear back from him, so I guess I did not pass the first stage of selection. I suspect that during the phone call my cynicism probably transpired!

I would not wish to generalise and claim that all Channel 4 journalists involved with mental health programmes are ignorant when it comes to the English mental health system and law. I can even try and be optimistic and hope that the guy I spoke to is the exception and not the rule. But my encounter is certainly a very worrying example and mental health charities, such as Mind or Rethink Mental Illness, that promote media programmes seeking to tackle mental health stigma (including the Channel 4 programme in question where they had an advisory role) need to be made aware and sensitised to these issues.

Finally, back in April I thought there were other problems with the intended Channel 4 programme as well. Just to illustrate- the production team wanted to select 4 people with ‘diagnosed’ mental health problems and 4 people without such problems (2 groups) who would be evaluated by a panel of experts (including business experts and psychiatrists). However, the 4 people without ‘diagnosed’ problems may still have mental health difficulties they struggle with that they may not want to disclose. In that case, on what basis was a comparison going to be made between the 2 groups following the evaluations of the panel of experts? My understanding was that what the programme sought to do was to show that people with diagnosed mental health problems can perform various work-related tasks equally well and be equally employable as people without mental health problems, which would contribute to destigmatising mental illness and questioning prejudices around it. But as I said above, a crude distinction between people with and without diagnosed mental health problems may be problematic, and if so, the entire endeavour could fail in showing anything whatsoever!

The Channel 4 programme referred to above was actually broadcasted on 25th July 2012 and was entitled ‘World’s Maddest Job Interview’. The programme was part of the Channel 4 mental health season entitled ‘4 Goes Mad’. The World’s Maddest Job Interview is described on the 4 Goes Mad website ( as a programme where ‘eight volunteers – some with significant mental health conditions and some without- have their work skills evaluated as they try to impress a panel of business experts […] Potential employers and psychiatrists observe the eight candidates and try to determine who is the most employable, without any knowledge of their mental health history’. Undoubtedly influenced strongly by my earlier encounter with the guy from the Channel 4 production team and what I perceived as problematic in relation to the Channel 4 programme, I did not watch the World’s Maddest Job Interview. In hindsight, I wish I had watched the programme as that would have allowed me to ascertain whether my concerns and scepticism were justified.


(From the New Zealand Film Archive)