A dangerous experiment

This appalling documentary was exploitative and irresponsible

<strong>The Doctor Who Hears Voices

So, how do we all feel, knowing that somewhere in Britain is a junior doctor who has lied both about the extent of her mental illness (she hears a voice that tells her to kill herself and other people) and her refusal to take prescribed medication in order that she might keep her job at an NHS hospital? Not great, in my case.

I reserve my fury, however, not for this vulnerable young woman, but for the man who encouraged her to tell such lies - the clinical psychologist Rufus May - and for the film-maker Leo Regan, who not only brought such activities to our attention in his documentary The Doctor Who Hears Voices (21 April, 10pm), but who seemingly had no compunction about his failure to inform the relevant authorities of what was going on. I would be interested to know what the Bradford District Care Trust, May's part-time employer, makes of this project. As for Channel 4's decision to screen it, complicity in this kind of stuff is extremely serious. The channel says it is in the public interest to expose the lengths to which people will go to disguise their illness, but the time for "debate" when it comes to mental health issues ends when human lives start to be at risk - as the last Tory government found out to its cost when it introduced its "care in the community" policy.

Rufus May is a psychologist who believes, though he was diagnosed with it himself at 18, that there is no such thing as schizophrenia. He thinks that psychotic experiences are "meaningful", that people can "learn" from manic behaviour, and that the drugs used to treat severe mental illnesses simply "shut patients up". In this film, we saw him treating, in his own time, a junior doctor called Ruth. May was going to help her "recover" without the aid of drugs and thereby survive the panel that would decide if she was fit to work. His view of this panel was that she would have to lie about the voice in her head; he did not think it affected her ability to be a doctor, and believed that if she admitted to it, she would lose her job.

His approach to her care was alarming. When her delusions grew more serious - she believed that the fish in the old people's home where she worked part-time were controlling the residents' heartbeats - he took it as a sign of progress. When the voice in her head grew louder, he simply talked to it using a "radical dialogue technique" to discover its identity, as though it were a real person.

The increasingly distressed Ruth (played by an actress to protect her identity, though other footage was real and her lines came from real transcripts) briefly went missing. Did he think she'd killed herself? Oddly, May was suddenly lost for words. He didn't want to "incriminate" himself, he said. I felt like punching him, and wondered how Leo Regan, sitting there beside him, managed to desist from doing just that.

Ah, yes. Leo Regan. We never saw him, but we heard him. His voice-over made you think that he was treating the whole thing as a huge lark. When May was evasive, which was often, he would say things like "Rufus was pissed off with me" or "I knew he was bullshitting me". He did not push May to justify his regime, nor did he ask him if his work had its roots in any kind of scientific research, preferring simply to titter at his somewhat antic behaviour.

But most appalling of all was the moment when he went to see Trevor Turner, a consultant psychiatrist who disagrees with May's techniques, to talk about Ruth's case. He duly told Turner her symptoms - though he did not explain, at least not on camera, that she was a real person - and asked what he would do with such a patient. Turner said she should be detained under the Mental Health Act for her own and the public's safety. And what did Regan do? Nothing. Meanwhile, May went on "talking" to Ruth's voice. That Ruth is still - or so I read - successfully working as a doctor does not make any of the above behaviour acceptable. May and Regan were lucky, that's all. This time, the experiment didn't blow up in their faces.

Pick of the week

Miss Austen Regrets
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Based on Austen letters, so better than some recent Hollywood efforts.

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Last of the series. Either you love these girls, or they drive you nuts.

Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts29 April, 9pm, BBC3
British volunteers experience life in a backstreet Delhi factory.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!