ABC’s mental health week gets real with second ‘Changing Minds’

Producer Jenni Wilks talks us through the second series of ABC’s acclaimed ‘Changing Minds’, which chronicles the happenings of one of Australia’s busiest Mental Health Units. 3f52a142c355b83772c2

In Australia, mental illness is the third leading cause of disability. Statistically each year, approximately one in every five Australians will experience some form of debilitating mental illness.

Yet in spite of how prevalent it may be, there remains a huge degree of stigma attached to those with mental illnesses, deeply entrenched negative perceptions held by the wider community.

A 2006 study reported by the Western Australia Mental Health Commission found that one in four people felt depression to be a sign of weakness and would not employ a person with depression; one in five said if they had depression they would not tell anyone; a third would not vote for any politician that had depression; and 42% thought people with depression were unpredictable.

Changing Minds: The Inside Story is a documentary series by Northern Pictures in collaboration with the ABC. About to enter its second season, the program – whose Oct 6 premiere coincides with Mental Health Week - not only attempts to challenge the perceptions we might hold about the mentally ill, it seeks to elicit a compassionate attitude by following the lives of several real patients inside a South Western Sydney hospital. Both touching and confronting, it emphasises the common humanity we can too easily forget we share with those less fortunate.

“There has not been another documentary before Changing Minds that has captured the reality of the experience for people who suffer,” says series producer Jenni Wilks. “I hope the audience comes to understand what it is really like for people and their families to live and deal with mental illness, which in turn will reduce the stigma associated with it.”

Wilks is certainly as qualified as anyone to pronounce on the subject. A formerly registered nurse, whose husband is a psychiatrist, she says it is her interest in health, medicine and social issues which draws her to medical documentaries.

For seventeen years, she was the supervising producer on RPA, where, she explains “mental illness was the only area of medicine never covered in a series that ran for seventeen years! I made several attempts to include mental illness in the series but there was resistance from medical staff and my own production peers.”

While Wilks argues this as another example of stigma towards mental illness, she reports that “ABC TV executives were very open to supporting the series,” and including it as part of their ‘Mental As…’ week of programming about Mental Health.

“With a filmmakers hat on I could see how the nature and impact of mental illnesses could engage an audience, particularly in an observational format,” says Wilks.

However, given the nature of the program, strict protocols were in place at all times during filming “ensuring patient’s welfare was paramount, our consent process was rigorous and the stories would be told respectfully,” as she explains.

Accordingly, nothing filmed for the series took place without the approval of a doctor, and no patient was approached without the agreement of a clinician. While all the patients who appear on screen gave consent, there were also follow up meetings afterwards to ensure they were still comfortable with the decision; doctors who assessed their capacity to make those decisions; and further reviews by family members and clinical staff of the filmed footage to ensure the process was one hundred percent ethically responsible.

“At the meetings we described exactly how the patients would appear in the program,” says Wilks, “when well and unwell, and who else would speak about them and their illness.”

However, what struck Wilks most about the people who agreed to be featured in the series “both the first and this series, is how strongly they and their families wanted to advocate for people who suffer from mental illness and their motivation to help others by telling their own story.”

What distinguishes Changing Minds according to Wilks, from other documentaries on the same subject, is that the patients’ stories are unfolding in real time and not being told retrospectively.

“What has not been seen before,” she says, “and therefore is poorly understood, is a person actually experiencing an acute phase of mental illness, seeing it as it happens. The audience actually see and learn what it is like for people to be mentally unwell. It was important to us to always separate the illness from the person and therefore it was crucial that we not only filmed people when unwell, but also when they had recovered. Thereby, providing the basics of storytelling with a beginning, middle, and end.”

Changing Minds: The Inside Story – Series 2 will premiere nationally Oct 6th on the ABC.