Why ITV's White House Farm has a role to play in tackling mental health stigma

Jo Lehmann, St Andrew's External Communications Manager, has shared her thoughts on the White House Farm drama with website DigitalSpy...

Today is Time to Talk Day, where we’re encouraged to talk about mental health with the aim of challenging stigma and supporting one another.

But it’s not just conversations between individuals that help break down misguided attitudes, and ITV’s factual drama White House Farm is a significant example of how television can go some way to bust the myths surrounding complex mental-health problems.

Anyone who’s been watching will have seen the re-telling of the White House Farm murders where, in 1985, two children, their mother and their grandparents were all found dead. Initially, the incident was viewed as a murder/suicide – it was believed that Sheila Bamber, the children’s mum, had a mental breakdown and murdered her entire family.

This narrative is continuously reiterated throughout the series: Sheila had serious mental-health problems, she had a history of schizophrenia and experienced psychotic symptoms, it all added up. The answer was obvious. Sheila murdered her family.

But of course, as the story unfolds, we discover that this conclusion was the result of assumptions and stigma – and the framing of the murders was set up by Sheila’s now imprisoned brother, Jeremy Bamber.

Sheila was vulnerable because of her mental-health problems – and her brother preyed upon that vulnerability – with very few people initially willing to consider that she may have been the victim, not the perpetrator.

Sheila was, back in the 80s, admitted to St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital in Northampton, run by the charity for which I work. And, as an organisation that regularly supports people with severe and complex mental-health problems, many of them experiencing schizophrenia, we know that stigma attached to this illness is still sky high.

Since the tragic White House Farm events took place in the '80s, there have been many campaigns and open conversations about mental health, with a big push from the global Time to Change campaign. Things have moved on significantly since then, as we are all talking more openly about mental health, especially when it comes to things like depression and anxiety.

But when it comes to the more complex mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, the conversation almost grinds to a halt.

This is more than simply an assumption: research that we recently commissioned showed that three in five people misinterpreted schizophrenia believing it to mean having ‘a split personality’, and one in four said they would be nervous of somebody diagnosed with schizophrenia. This shows that there is fear, but that the fear is based on misunderstanding, rather than fact.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about psychosis – a key symptom of schizophrenia – is its confusion with psychopathy. This topic often comes up in relation to TV and movie portrayals.

Take Killing Eve, a wonderful fictional drama with lots of conversation about psychopathy centred on a cold-blooded assassin, Villanelle. Yet when the conversation continues on social media about this programme, there is often a lot of confusion, with Villanelle and her behaviour being described as 'psychotic' rather than 'psychopathic'. The two things are completely different.

Psychopathy often involves a lack of empathy and superficial charm, whereas psychosis is where the individual can become detached from reality – making them incredibly vulnerable. Confusing vulnerable people with the idea of violence makes their lives even harder than they already are. And sadly, as Time to Change’s research points out, over a third of the public believes that people with a mental-health problem are likely to be violent – when in fact, they are more likely to be victims of crime.

So what is psychosis? One of the most accessible descriptions can be found on Mind’s website where it is described as when someone perceives or interprets reality in a very different way from other people. It describes the most common types of psychotic experiences as "hallucinations, delusions, disorganised thinking and speech".

While Hollywood portrayals of psychosis often get it wrong, British soaps should be commended for their often sympathetic and authentic storylines. A recent example was that of Carla Connor’s experience on Coronation Street, where the confident and assertive character became extremely vulnerable and terrified.

These accurate portrayals are so important as, from the research we conducted, more than a quarter of respondents cited the news, TV and film as the main influence behind their perceptions of mental health. So, it’s comforting to know that many TV programmes work closely with Mind’s media advisory service to ensure portrayals are accurate and responsible.

White House Farm demonstrates how stigma can have dramatic and sometimes damaging consequences for society and individuals. It reminds us not to judge people with mental health problems and it shows the potential impact on people if we do.

White House Farm concludes on ITV on Wednesday 12 February at 9pm. Thursday 6 February is Time To Talk, a day dedicated to destigmatising mental illness. Find out more about the campaign here. Pictures courtesy of ITV.