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16 February 2016updated 05 Aug 2021 10:09am

Would you swap places with Stephen Fry? The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive reviewed

The familiarity, bordering on the generic, in the format of this “ten years later” update serves to make a valuable point about the UK’s appalling mental health provision.

By Jenny Landreth

Stephen Fry’s life, eh. Pretty good, eh. Planes, meetings, more planes, meetings, planes…  Lucky bastard, eh. Would you swap?

If you didn’t know much about Stephen Fry’s mental health diagnosis before this one-hour documentary (Monday, BBC1, 9pm), which opened the BBC’s two-week Mental Health season, you might indeed have fancied swapping. If you still feel it after you’ve watched, if you come away feeling it’s OK for him to be bipolar because he’s famous, then you’ve really missed the point. Because maybe the reverse is true, and it’s harder. Or maybe, actually, there are no scales that balance one thing against the other, air miles versus a mental disorder. Maybe it’s not easier or harder whatever stuff or status you’ve got. The point is, there isn’t a rich person’s way of feeling suicidal that is any nicer.

Following on from Fry’s Secret Life Of A Manic Depressive of ten years ago, in which he talked honestly about his mental health, this new documentary asks whether,

apart from it now being called bipolar, much else has changed. Ten years down the line, do we understand bipolar any better? Watching Scott, Cordelia, Rachel and Alika tell their personal stories, the answers lie in a tangle of yes and no.

Of course for anyone involved there is greater understanding via necessity. These are tiny yeses gathered one by one. Assent exists in people’s own acceptance – I’m thinking particularly of Rachel, who for ages said she’d fallen, rather than tried to fly out of a window, for fear of being judged. Then she “came out” in a blog, and told the truth about what had happened and the unconditional positivity she received makes quite a resounding YES. Yes, once we see it happen to a person we know in real life, we understand better.

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The chances of it happening to a person we know are high. 1 in 4 people will have some kind of mental health issue this year. What are we waiting for? Are we only going to try understanding once it’s our own mum/brother/self? Do we really have to gather the yeses one by one? Because there’s still a loud and basic NO to the question of whether much has changed, and it plays out in the form of stigma.

It’s a common thread through these stories, either internalised (which doesn’t happen in a vacuum and might affect a person’s attitude to diagnosis and help) or actual, in-your-face, no-mistaking-this-for-a-bit-of-jolly-banter stigma. Take what happened to Alika Agidi-Jeffs. Some arse with a mobile secretly filmed him singing on the train in what we’d now know as a manic episode, and he became an overnight Toutube sensation! A 2 million-hit viral wonder! Dream come true! The brutal comments under the video, “racist and inhumane” as Alika describes them, triggered a suicide attempt, and he was sectioned and diagnosed as bipolar. The shocking cruelty of internet commenters is one we’re familiar with, and for Alika they could have proved fatal.

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I can’t imagine that you, exemplary New Statesman citizen, have actively stigmatised a person with mental health issues. I can’t imagine you’ve commented under a Youtube video that someone “needs shooting”. It’s never us, we can always point the finger elsewhere. But in Alika’s experience, it is adults who become negative. We see him talking to a group of school students who seem open and reflective even as they say that “you’re so bipolar” is now a playground insult.  Maybe Alika’s talk will help them resist the encroachment of negativity. Maybe this programme will. Fry agrees in a brief postscript at the end: young people are more sympathetic, he says. So that’s hopeful. Alika’s life is now about collecting in the yeses, classroom by classroom; and Rachel has become a peer support worker for people with mental health issues.

Not So Secret Life is important because it can gather yeses in quantity. It’s not innovative in format: the violin music feels generic, the narration just stays this side of unctuous. But there’s something key in that familiarity, underscoring that 1 in 4 statistic. It is important because we need to understand what Fry calls “a submerged minority” better. To do it now, before the statistic comes home, if it hasn’t already. The timing is pretty critical: the programme went out on as a leaked report showed how the mental health provision in this country is now at crisis levels. The current government’s actions make Thatcher’s “care in the community” look positively benign. So while we watch this and try and get our own house in order, the government is loudly telling us they don’t give a shit. That’s a frightening thought for all the Rachels, Scotts, Cordelia and Alikas coming up next. 

Still feel like swapping with Stephen Fry? No. Me neither.