In the spotlight

Putting wacky characters together in a house and watching how
they get along has been a tried and tested route to success for
television producers since the first series of Big Brother
five years ago.

But the recent Channel 4 two-part documentary The House of
Obsessive Compulsives
reinvented the concept. In place of the
pantomimic participants who usually appear on reality TV, were
Wendy, Sophie and Gerard, united under the same roof by virtue of
their desire to be rid of their mental health problems rather than
an attempt to become rich and famous.

For two weeks, the trio shared a house and received intensive
therapy to help them combat their obsessive compulsive disorders
(OCD), the extremities of which were bound to spark an
audience’s interest. Wendy’s fear of paint and glitter
was such that she had not touched her husband or two sons for three
years; Sophie could not stop washing herself, sometimes for up to
seven hours a day; and Gerard could not put pen to paper because he
was so afraid that he would confess to a crime he had not

Watching their emotional ride through the treatment programme was
gripping, but it raised ethical issues about using vulnerable
people for entertainment. Is it acceptable to encourage vulnerable
people to reveal sensitive information about themselves live on TV?
Does it achieve anything more than satisfying the voyeuristic
leanings of the sofa-sitting masses? And, more importantly, why do
people agree to take part and does going on television come back
and haunt them?

To an extent, it depends on the programme. Colin Putney, who has
OCD, is supportive of The House of Obsessive Compulsives.
He says: “It was handled fairly and sensitively and the
sufferers were not exploited. It will have reached a lot of people
and, thanks to the programme, undiagnosed sufferers will now get

Increasing public awareness of mental health problems is a good
thing – particularly with conditions such as OCD where the
average time from the onset of symptoms to diagnosis is 17 years.
But, given the nature of how the media works, there is always a
danger that serious issues will be sensationalised or the most
“freakish” behaviour given the greatest attention
– people with the neurological disorder Tourette’s
syndrome are often only wanted for media work if they swear, even
though only 10 to 30 per cent have this symptom.

But Putney, who used to be a television producer, has a realistic
understanding of the industry. “They have to make programmes
interesting otherwise everyone switches off. They have a duty to
act fairly and accurately but they have to engage the attention of
the audience and people wake up when they hear something exciting
and sensational. You can’t just have the most mundane, boring
cases because no one will bother watching.”

But that’s not to say that people should be encouraged to do
or say things just because it would make good TV. Putney handles
media enquiries on a voluntary basis for the charity OCD Action and
has a pool of volunteers on whom he calls to talk to the press
about their conditions.

He says: “I tell the volunteers that they have to be careful
what they tell the media and that they should only say what they
are happy to see in print. I’m smart enough to know that you
can’t tell them some things because if you do you will be
branded a loony. People get carried away and rabbit on and say
things they might regret.”

In one case he had to ask a producer to edit out one woman’s
comments that could have been detrimental to her had they been
Putney recalls the first time he appeared on television, in a news
bulletin for London Tonight. At the time he had not “come
out” about his mental health condition. “I was
terrified about what people would think,” he says.

As it is, he has never had a negative comment, but he is not
convinced this would be the case if he was in paid
For Liz Main, however, it was her family that was of most concern
to her after she appeared in Bye Bye Happiness, a BBC3
documentary which featured her experiences of manic

She says: “I was talking frankly about when I had tried to
kill myself. It’s not really what you want to discuss with
your family as you worry that it’s going to upset

Her family live in Australia, and on a visit to them Main took a
DVD of the documentary. But she could not face watching it with
them. However, she need not have worried: “They said they
were proud of me and I was blown away by that. I’d expected
some awkwardness because I was talking about intimate details. But
it was good because  they now have more of an insight into what
it’s all about.”

In the documentary, Main re-enacts episodes of her life, including
the time she spent £250 on tuna. Events in the documentary
such as this have been enlightening for her relationship with her
boyfriend’s family (she met him after he saw the programme
and got in touch).
“His entire family had seen the documentary and so before
they met me they had seen me on TV being manic and talking about
suicide attempts,” she says with a smile.

For Main, it was essential that the documentary production team
knew what her boundaries were as she did not want her house to be
filmed or her friends involved. She found the team supportive
– including the make-up artist who brightened her make-up
after she became temporarily depressed during the two days of

Main believes it is vital that someone who is directly affected by
mental health problems speaks out on the issues and has appeared on
several news and current affairs programmes, particularly to talk
about mental health law.

Like others, the motivations behind her television appearances have
been to show others with mental illness how she copes, and to raise

But what sort of impact do those with mental illness who brave the
studios have on the public? A potentially significant one, given
the stereotypes that prevail. A Social Exclusion Unit report states
that two-thirds of UK press and television coverage of mental
health includes an association with violence. So anything showing
otherwise is a refreshing change.(1)

Andy Bell, a spokesperson for Mentality, a charity which promotes
good mental health, says: “One thing that tackles stigma is
personal contact with people with mental health problems. The best
way is to know people and see them personally, but television can
help to improve public understanding by providing second-hand

But he warns that viewers do not always interpret programmes in the
way they are expected to. In some cases, prejudices can be
reinforced unwittingly. This is particularly true of news reports
– when mental illness hits the news it is often because
someone has become unwell and been violent, exacerbating the myth
that all people with mental health problems are dangerous.

Bell believes that mental illness needs more exposure on
television. “We need quantity as much as quality. The more
people we see with mental health problems, the more each individual
portrayal matters less. At the moment there are so few that each
one affects how we think.”

Stigma and discrimination continue to be massive barriers for
people with mental health problems, so any tactic that serves to
reduce them deserves to be nurtured. But there is a flipside to
television exposure, which is clearly illustrated by The House
of Obsessive Compulsives

Three and a half million people tuned in to see Wendy, Sophie and
Gerard make dramatic progress – Wendy and Sophie are now 100
per cent free of symptoms, Gerard is 80 per cent of the way there.
Such inspirational findings will act as a spur for other sufferers
to come forward for treatment – only to find themselves, like
so many others, directed to the back of a long waiting list.

(1) Mental Health and Social Exclusion, Social Exclusion
Unit, 2004

Page Number = 26
BOXHEAD=who is vulnerable?  BOXTEXT: The Ofcom Broadcasting Code
defines vulnerable people as those with learning difficulties,
mental health problems, the bereaved, people with brain damage or
forms of dementia, those who have been traumatised or who are sick
or terminally ill. Clause 8.22 states that vulnerable people should
not be questioned about private matters without the consent of the
person with primary responsibility for their care.1 A recent
judgement2 ruled that a Channel 4 documentary about a  32-year-old
woman with dissociative identity disorder, which manifests itself
by different personalities, could be screened.  The official
solicitor, who acts on behalf of those unable to, had tried to
prevent the programme being shown on the grounds that the woman
lacked the capacity to consent to take part. The documentary, Being
Pamela, was screened in June. 1 Ofcom Broadcasting Code, Ofcom,
2005 2 England and Wales High Court (EWHC), 1144 (Fam), 2005

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