Show of the Week: Changing Minds

One of the more pernicious side effects of the burgeoning self-help and faith-based therapy movements is the implicitly - and often explicitly - stated suggestion of what positive thinking can achieve. Among the dubious claims of these mostly unproven therapies is that a long list of ailments, from cancer and depression to obesity, can be avoiding by harnessing the power of humankind's most remarkable organ, the brain.

Inside the mental health unit of Sydney's Campbelltown Hospital, such beliefs have very little traction.

Here, drugs that can prevent someone in the grip of a psychotic episode from harming themselves or others is a necessary prelude to any talking therapy.

A sequel to one of the most memorable, thought-provoking and challenging documentaries produced in this country in recent times, Changing Minds: The Inside Story takes another candid and unflinching look behind the scenes of a mental health ward.

Understated and unmediated, it's a raw and eye-opening insight into mental illness, its origins and the difficult, though far from impossible, road to treatment. In the first of three episodes the focus is largely on young people who have been diagnosed or are in the process of being diagnosed with a serious mental health problem.

More than half of the people at risk of mental illness with have their first episode between the ages of 17 and 24.

Among them is heavy-metal fiend Joel, who lives part-time with his girlfriend and part-time "in a cave in the bush". Quiet and withdrawn, 20-year-old Daniel is addicted to cannabis, which is doctors fear is masking underlying health issues. Taileah, a nurse, hears voices telling her to kill people and to hurt herself. Fabrice, who has already been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has inexplicably relapsed and returned to the ward for treatment. Manic and wired, he vacillates between gibberish and lucidity.

What we come to realise as they tell their stories to the gentle and stoic Dr Mark Cross and his team is just how much each of them is a product of their upbringings and backgrounds. Some are scarred by the tragic death or illness of a parent, some are suffering momentary relapses in their otherwise successful treatment, some have personality disorders, which may not in fact be an illness.

Their stories, as well as those of their immediate family and carers, unravel with dignity and respect. Not for a single moment as we watch Changing Minds do we feel they are being exploited or judged. Nor are we invited to view them as victims whose role is to enlighten the rest of us about the "curse" of mental illness. Nor do we feel that we're being preached at about a problem that affects "other" people.

If there's a single take-home message that Changing Minds, both the original and the sequel, instils it's that mental illness doesn't discriminate, and that there are still many stigmas and misconceptions about whom it affects and how.

Paul Kalina

Age Green Guide - CM Show of the Week - 01.10.15