‘The film captures the moments when our work comes to fruition’: the social worker in Channel 4’s new series

Jim Thurkle was shadowed by a film crew as part of Channel 4's new mental health documentary series Bedlam. Andy McNicoll finds out how he found the experience...

Social worker Jim Thurkle Picture credit: SLaM

Tonight (November 14) at 9pm, social worker Jim Thurkle features in Bedlam, the Channel 4 series that follows the work of a number of teams at South London and Maudsley NHS mental health trust.

Tonight’s episode – Psychosis – focuses on the work of community mental health teams. I caught up with Jim, who is also an approved mental health professional, to find out how he found working under the gaze of a film crew.

What did you think when the filmmakers approached you to take part in this film? Did you have any hesitation?

It was quite a surprise to begin with. Our team did have some reservations initially but I’d seen some of the 24 hours in A&E series that the filmmakers had worked on previously. I was really impressed by how that series dealt with human aspect of people coming into hospital for emergency care. It was with that very positive image in mind that I wanted to take part in Bedlam.

Ultimately the professionalism and interest of the two filmmakers we met – Pete [Beard, producer] and Dave [Nath, director] – immediately addressed any concerns. They had obviously researched the subject well. At points it felt that they knew more about the Mental Health Act than I did ! It became clear that everyone involved didn’t want this to be a sensationalised account, we didn’t want cheap points scored about mental health work in the community.

What was the best part of being involved in the programme?

The crew filming an interview I did with one of my clients at her house about two weeks after she’d been discharged from hospital. She was doing really well, she was back in her own home. The film crew had been with us on the assessment where she had been very unwell and admitted to hospital. I was really glad the post-hospital and recovery side of things was filmed too. For me it’s so important to show that.

And the hardest part?

Having a camera crew with me on home visits was certainly a new experience! But really the only hard bit was just our initial reservations. We wanted to make sure that confidentiality was respected and people wouldn’t be shown in a sensationalist light.

Our concerns didn’t actually transpire, again because of the filmmakers’ preparation and reassurance. They were very bright guys who cared about what they were doing. They’d dealt with sensitive issues before too and that showed.

It’s rare for the work of community mental health teams to be in the media spotlight. Do you hope this boosts awareness of what you guys do?

We’ve always been hopeful that this film, whatever audience it reaches, will offer some kind of counter to a lot of the sensationalist news stories about people with mental health issues.

The film crew saw the proper day-to-day stuff we do. A lot of it is not very dramatic – going to do a home visit, sometimes people won’t be in, and then coming back to the office. But they also captured the moments when all our work comes to fruition and you get to help somebody. That’s what we’re here for.

Did having filmmakers asking questions about your role actually help you reflect on your practice?

It really made me think about everything I was doing and why I was doing it, both in terms of day-to-day and year-to-year stuff. The two filmmakers really allowed us the space to reflect on that.

As well as following me doing the routine stuff, I also sat down a couple of times to talk to them alone about some of the wider issues. I remember they talked to me about my background. We were in a local park on an estate where we work and I was talking to them about the history of the place because I’ve worked here for years. It was really good to talk about.

From your experience with Bedlam, would you like to see more NHS trusts and local authorities open their doors to let people see what they do?

I do actually. Despite all the PR talk about open and honest working practices and transparency, I think having a programme like Bedlam on-screen can only heighten the awareness of mental illness. It is illness after all. It’s not a ‘shock horror’ thing but that’s so often how the media portrays it.

Our team’s approach has always been to demystify mental illness. What we do day-to-day is just the same as any job where you deal with illness and you try and help where you can. I hope that comes across in the film.

Now that you’ve had a taste for TV do you fancy launching an acting career in Hollywood?

(Laughs) No, no, definitely not! I’ll stick with social work.

If Hollywood comes calling who would play you in a film version of Bedlam?

If he was still alive it would be Tommy Cooper because I look a bit like him!

is Community Care’s community editor

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