“Everyone needs to try harder if we want to end mental health stigma”

X Factor can do better when it comes to mental health stigma

Lola Saunders’ rendition of Crazy on the show last week, which featured dancers in straitjackets, highlights how everyone needs to try harder if we want to end mental health stigma

X Factor 2014Cheryl Fernandez-Versini has been criticised for the way she talked about mental health issues on the X Factor last week. Photograph: SYCO/THAMES TV/PA

One thing that I don’t understand about why mental health stigma still exists is that there’s nothing difficult to understand about mental health. It’s discussed frequently in the media, and there always seems to behigh-profile charity campaigns trying to raise awareness. Despite this though, it feels like we’re in a bizarre version of Groundhog Day: a constant and repetitive battle against mental health misconceptions and misrepresentations. Last year, Asda was slammed for selling ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costumes for Halloween. This year, Jokers’ Masquerade was criticised by MP Norman Lamb for selling ‘Skitzo’ costumes. And then there’s the X Factor.

Last week, Lola Saunders was voted off the show, after performing a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ on the Halloween-themed show. Accompanying her on stage were dancers pretending to be dressed in straitjackets – because, you know, ‘crazy’. When Cheryl Fernandez-Versini was asked to clarify the link to Halloween at the end of the performance, she pulled a funny face and replied ‘It was crazy, we had a theme. If you didn’t notice, there were people in straitjackets’.

It’s not the first time that mental health issues have been brought up in relation to the television show, and I doubt it will be the last. However, it doesn’t need to be this way. It’s just that a little more thought needs to go into the process.

Implying that ‘crazy’ people need to be locked up or put in straitjackets is, quite frankly, insulting to the estimated 16 million people in the UK that suffer from mental health issues. It perpetuates the myth that they are somehow dangerous, or at the very least, indiscriminate generic focus points for ridicule, a caricature to be mocked. As I’ve said before, if you want to know what a person suffering from mental health issues looks like, then just look around you. In the street, in your office, at home. None of them are wearing straitjackets or wearing gruesome masks. They’re just people. It’s really not that hard to understand this.

But I don’t think it was done intentionally – or at least, I hope not. Producing live shows is a high-pressure situation, and often creative decisions will have to be made very quickly. In those sorts of circumstances information that is consistent with preconceived stereotypes might be the first – and possibly only – thing that comes to mind. If you’ve not put much thought into mental health issues or the stigma surrounding them, then in these sorts of situations, you probably won’t put any thought into considering how viewers might feel when they see dancers in straitjackets on the stage.

It might have been done unintentionally, but that doesn’t absolve X Factor producers of a duty towards responsible programming. When you’re involved in the production of a primetime, Saturday night show with high ratings, you have to appreciate that how you present potentially sensitive topics might have a profound effect on the way that viewers interpret those topics. A classic case in point is the persistent problem of the way that body image is presented in the media. So producers and presenters just need to try harder, and take a little more time to make sure that they’re not inadvertently undermining the hard work that has gone into trying to banish these myths. Here are some good places to start:

  • The Time to Change campaign has a media advisory servicethat offers advice and workshops on how best to represent mental health issues in the media.
  • The Mental Elf is an excellent website that provides up-to-date information on evidence-based mental health research and news in an easy-to-digest format.

It’s frustrating to have to say the same thing over and over again about mental health stigma in the media. But clearly, there is still much more work to be done in getting the right information to the right people. It seems like we all need to try harder with this.

Credit: Guardian Newspaper:-


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