Casting Call: Would You Discuss Your Mental Illness on Television?

4 years ago

So, sometimes when you've spent years bleeding all over the Internet, people turn up you wouldn't otherwise expect. For example, a casting producer from an Emmy-award-winning reality television production company left a message on my voicemail Friday afternoon.

The message was that he'd seen my work with Families for Depression Awareness and wanted to know if I'd help get the word out for a new show currently being cast that focuses on mental illness. I hung up my voicemail and looked at my husband and told him what the message was. After we laughed about the absurdity of life sometimes, I said, "Of course I'm not going to call him back."

Credit Image: Montse PB on Flickr

But my husband questioned that. He asked why not, when there are clearly plenty of people who are at their wits' end and can't afford the resources the show could provide. That gave me pause. And he pointed out I've shared my struggles with eating disorders and anxiety disorder publicly for years via blogging. I had to concede I might be filtering my response via an anti-reality-television bias. I'm always ambivalent about reality television. I love how it brings light to talent via singing shows and design shows. I love how it educates about interesting or dangerous jobs. I hate how it sometimes encourages narcissism and celebrates in-fighting when the show is about dating or spending money in ridiculous ways. And I worry worry worry about it exploiting people instead of helping them.

But ... I'm human. I will watch anything that has to do with eating disorders after my own experiences. I watched the entire season of Starving Secrets with Tracey Gold, and while I didn't really mind Tracey, I disapproved of the way the clinics handled their patients:

I didn't see a lot of treatment going on for the mental illness piece of the eating disorder other than just telling the patient she was doing it wrong. I didn't see much compassion, either. I know I didn't see most of their sessions, but showing just the parts where therapists were telling the patients they were being ridiculous isn't helpful in the fight to convince society that you can't shame a person out of an eating disorder.

I hemmed and hawed all weekend about whether or not to call the producer back. I did some research on the grandmother of rehab shows, Intervention. I was surprised. I found this from Natasha Vargas-Cooper writing at The Daily Beast:

Of the 161 addicts that have appeared on A&E’s show Intervention in the past five years, 130 are sober today. There is no standard metric for recovery, but you take into account the high recidivism of drug offenders going back to jail, the chronic relapsing of people who have passed through state-based rehab programs, and anyone who has dealt with an addict in his or her personal life, the 71 percent recovery rate is, by any standard, astonishingly high.

But why is the success rate so high? Because that seems bizarre, and assuming the camera achieved the success seems a little correlation-without-causation to me. Upon further research, it appears a lot of time goes into working with the family of the addict before the intervention itself:

A key factor in the show’s high recovery rate only gets about two minutes of air-time: the intervention training with the addict’s loved ones. The trainings are six- to eight-hours long and are conducted by Finnigan or VanVonderen the day before the actual intervention. One part of the training is spent unearthing the various ways the family has been hurt by the addict’s behavior, with the interventionist providing insight into the physiological science of addiction.

I am not a doctor, but after forty years of living with my own mental illness and five or six years of answering three or four emails a week from anorexics or their loved ones who email me after seeing one of my eating disorder posts, I believe strongly that treating mental illness straight-up or mental illness with a side of addiction or cutting or starving or other self-harming behaviors requires talking to the family members/boyfriends/girlfriends/friends, too. If you're struggling with mental illness and everyone around you is asking why you can't just fix yourself, that's a problem. The education of the family and friends can't be conducted by the struggling person. It has to be a medical professional. If this show they're proposing—which is not about addiction, but rather about women struggling with bipolar disorder, self-harm disorders, and/or postpartum depression—could really educate the women's families and friends about their pain and provide them with 10-15 sessions after the show airs, is this okay? Is it then okay to film them? Could the filming help other people, the way documentaries often do? Or will it do more harm than good?

The producer assured me that with this show, everyone knows what's going on, as opposed to Intervention, where the addict thought he or she was doing a show about addiction in general. He also said they are looking for people who have shared about their experiences on social media, looking for help. And then kind of struck home, because hey, I know this story!.

But on the flipside, there's this opinion from Katherine Stone of Postpartum Progress, a good friend and fellow anxiety sufferer as well as the founder of her incredibly helpful, successful and influential resource for women suffering from PPD.

I get asked all the time to connect TV producers with moms who have postpartum depression or anxiety. I generally always say no, because Postpartum Progress is against the exploitation of struggling mothers. It seems like the producers never want to portray a mom who has recovered, who is a symbol of hope and health. Instead they'll talk to a bunch of potential subjects and then choose the one who has the worst, scariest symptoms and is a sobbing mess. That bugs me; it's a way of subtly furthering stigma. Besides, once this mother recovers she may regret having participated during such an unstable and painful time in her life. I've become very wary of TV producers and casting agents because of how I've seen them cover the subject of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders over the years.

I still fear reality shows about mental illness. I want so very badly for them to help and not hurt. I hope the producers and directors and everyone involves thinks carefully about their editing and how said editing is portraying not only an individual, but the mental illness as a whole. My anxiety disorder is different than anyone else's anxiety disorder because of my personality and how hard I'm trying to treat it and myriad other environmental factors (I have access to healthcare, healthy food and eight hours of sleep at night). We are all different, and we must be careful to remember this when talking about mental illness. That said, I still answer all those emails even though I'm not a medical professional. I answer because I remember how it felt to be so lost that you'd reach out to a complete stranger. So I'm setting aside my worries and letting you all know about this show that is currently recruiting. They are looking for 18-40-year-old women. I've been told they will provide free mental health assistance. If you're interested, here's a link to their casting survey.

Would you ever go on reality television to talk about a health concern, mental health or otherwise?

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the deputy editor of Find more at

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