The way things used to be, when someone was any type of different, people would call them crazy. The term has since fallen out of favor in many areas with the rise in awareness of mental illness. Everyday, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health professionals and activists are working every day to fight against the “crazy” stigma to show that mental illness is virtually the same as any other illness.
The three-part BBC TV series Don’t Call Me Crazy follows the story of the McGuinness Unit, which houses and treats teenagers with serious mental health issues. Throughout the show, we meet several teenagers and learn about the full effects of their mental illness, potential causes and the treatments they receive. Of course, the patients we meet are only a fraction of the residents and a small snapshot of the diseases and disorders treated in the facility.
The show mainly follows the story of Beth who came to the center due to suicidal ideation that resulted from her Bulimia and Anorexia. Beth is a fun-loving, silly, practically normal teenager who loves dancing and gymnastics. When she first arrives in the unit, she talks about her self-image and why she chooses not to eat. As she remains in the unit, her symptoms worsen, she goes over a hundred days without food or drink. She walks up and down hallways for exercise and harbors diet coke as a dietary supplement. Finally, she is placed on a section, where she is held against her will and is required to have observation during meals with staff essentially forcing her to take one sip of a meal replacement drink. We see her continual rise and fall from beginning to eat, but then self-harming later.
Beth experiences essentially all of the procedures of the unit, including bedroom searches for items that could be used for self-harm, the utilization of home-leave as a motivation to follow the rules and treatment plans, and more. I think it was wise to have Beth’s story be the unifying narrative throughout the series because of this, and because she deals with a mental illness that is incredibly pervasive in contemporary society.
While you do see patients in times of mental health crisis, most of the show portrays patients in quieter times, living daily life in the unit and talking about what they feel and how they think. This is the most interesting part of the show, to hear why Beth believes she is fat and why she likes feeling hunger pains. She is incredibly open about how she is defying treatment and why she cuts herself. These are the things a person without a mental illness wouldn’t understand, and it is an attempt to help them understand. We hear Emma, who suffers from OCD, explain why a disorganized room would result in the loss of a parent. We hear Crystal, who has hallucinations of good and bad characters that tell her to do things, point out one of them sitting on the bed. I think the show is incredibly effective in humanizing mentally ill patients and showing them how professionals work through treatment options and therapy.
We also see two boys later who are struggling with suicidal tendencies. While there are far more girls on the unit, the show does not glaze over the differences in treating men versus women, in that they are less likely to open up about their feelings and their symptoms often manifest more in violence.
This is an area of the health system that is often ignored or swept under the rug, as it always has been in the past. However, as effective as it is, one has to wonder about the morality of the entire project. We learn, in incredible depth, the patients’ medical history and hear their doctors discuss them and their treatments. Is this fair to the patients? One could argue that because many, like Beth, are sanctioned, they don’t have control enough to make decisions about this. But I would assume that all of the families have agreed that they may be featured on the show. Whether it is ethical or not, is still up for debate, I suppose.
“Treatment at the McGuinness Unit is less about finding a cure for the patient, and more about helping them find ways of coping in the outside world,” the narrator says. This is another thing I love about this show. They say that cures aren’t necessarily plausible, but effective coping mechanisms can lead to a happy and healthy, normal life. Because ultimately, they are simply normal teenagers who just want to live the lives their friends are living. They make presents for each other, play games, take pictures, gossip and laugh. It is simply that they are going through some extra adversity on top of the already difficult task of growing up through adolescence. It is fascinating, and humbling, to watch — truly a hidden gem on Netflix that many should watch, if for no other reason than to attempt to understand those with different struggles from us.
I think Emma said it best in the show when she said, “You wouldn’t ask someone, ‘Why have you got a cold? You have no reason to have one.'”
What did you think of BBC’s Don’t Call Me Crazy? Do you think there is still a negative stigma around mental illness? How can shows like this one increase awareness and decrease the stigma? How should mental illness treatment differ for teenagers versus adults? Do you think the show crosses an ethical line? Let’s talk.