ABC's Mental Health Week gets real with second 'Changing Minds'

ABC’s Mental As… week won plenty of acclaim in 2014 for “shining light” on mental illness, particularly in the centrepiece of the week — a three-part documentary which went inside a mental health unit. Changing Minds is an excellent piece of documentary and thoroughly deserved its accolades, including the Sydney Morning Herald review which named it “one of the most important programs in Australian television history.”

That first series was a fascinating and rich look into the workings of a mental health unit but there was one message at its centre — effective (although far from perfect) treatments are available. The science of mental health is more advanced than the average schmo understands and illness can be managed in many instances. Across three one-hour episodes, the audience was given a relatively broad snapshot into how mental health units operate, which is something many of us will never experience firsthand. There’s certainly an element of the series that feels uncomfortably voyeuristic, but as far as representation and “awareness” can go to helping solve real problems (and that is probably not as far as we’d like to imagine), there’s a lot of potential in this show.

The second season, which begins Tuesday, October 6, has a focus on younger people with a variety of mental health problems. This time the series has moved from Liverpool to the mental health units at Campbelltown Hospital, but Dr Mark Cross, the main psychiatrist from the first series, returns.

The publicity material for the second series continues the theme of the first: “the message is clear – help is available, mental illness is treatable.” But the second season takes a more holistic view of the patients, their context, and the difficulties they face in seeking that help. While the message might be clear, the actual situations are far more complicated.

These are exactly the issues which need to be raised if the Mental As… week is to have any benefit this time around: mental illness is treatable, but certain personal and socioeconomic circumstances can make it very difficult to treat those illnesses effectively. And the necessary resources are often not available.

This time around, we are shown a patient who is very unwell but has to wait for two days for a bed to become available in a mental health unit as well as a 20-year-old woman, Taileah, who has responsibilities to care for her sick mother and hold down a job which make her reluctant to seek the help she requires. Severe stress triggers her to have hallucinatory episodes in which she hears voices, and it’s clearly compounded by the pressures placed upon her to keep herself well so she can continue to provide care for her family.

Most of the patients we meet in this season are eventually released from the unit, having received the treatment they need to be functional again. You do, however, get the clear impression that most of them are in need of quality, ongoing care. It’s a sad reality of our mental health care system that there’s not the funding to make that available to all who need it.

Of course, this remains compelling viewing — the stories are gorgeously told, with clarity and great heart. The patients are the real champions here — sharing very difficult, personal experiences in the hope that they might have an impact and eventually help those going through similar experiences.

The central story of Daniel, a 20-year-old man who goes into the unit to overcome a severe cannabis addiction is particularly revealing. Daniel’s mother died when he was very young and he was put into foster care for six years — an experience which left him severely traumatised. His cannabis use has, for years, been masking psychotic symptoms and anxiety, which means his rehabilitation is a particularly difficult process. Further complicating matters is the fact that his grandparents — who he has lived with for several years, mostly never leaving the house — are deeply suspicious of mental health care professionals and disagree with his decision to enter the unit as a voluntary patient. These matters are never simple and this season explores those complexities in a way that the first did not.

Thankfully Changing Minds seems to be going in the direction that the “conversation” needs to go in — how do we ensure treatment can be accessed by all who need it? If the ABC can mobilise its audience into demanding a better-resourced mental health care system, the broadcaster would be doing extraordinary work.