The ground-breaking film "The Doctor Who Hears Voices" was shown on Channel 4 in April. The film has provoked a strong mixed reaction (see 'Psychologists film provokes storm of reactions' at the psychminded website) and initated debate nationally about the meaning of madness; the rights to drug free approaches and to employment for voice hearers. It follows the true story of myself working with a junior doctor who hears voices and cannot afford to tell her employers about this experience. The Radio Times called it 'documentary of the week'. They say:
"Leo Regan's superb drama-doc tells the true story of Ruth, a young doctor who was suspended from her job after admitting to feeling suicidal. Ruth's scenes are reconstructed using an actor (Ruth Wilson, who is amazing), and seamlessly woven into documentary footage. Ruth isn't just depressed, she also hears a voice in her head that tells her to do destructive things (kill herself; kill other people), and she has paranoid delusions. Treating her is clinical psychologist Dr Rufus May, a fascinating figure who believes that medicating people like Ruth makes them "stupid" and can destroy lives. Instead, he tries to break the hold the voice has on Ruth by talking to it and working out who it represents. Rufus knows what he's talking about: he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 18. His imitation of what it feels like to have a voice in your head is shocking, as are the scenes where he engages in "radical dialogue" with Ruth's voice. You're willing for his unorthodox approach to work even as it exposes huge issues over how we treat mental illness and addresses that darkest of questions - what it means to be "mad". "
This is Boo Kipps' review:
"With nearly 40 links shown on google "The Dr who hears voices" has certainly got people talking. Mental health related message boards are buzzing with conversation about last nights cutting edge programme which has paved the way for renewed debate about how we perceive "mental illness" and the way it is treated in our society. For this I commend all those involved in it's making and showing.
From a personal perspective it fills me with hope. A voice hearer myself I have experienced first hand mainstream psychiatry and found its blinkered view of "mental illness" both dismissive and blaming. Raw human emotion is pathologised and suppressed so often with pharmaceutical straight jackets and lives written off by labels that create the massive "them and us" divide felt by so many of us called "mentally ill". It is therefore enormously refreshing to see Dr Rufus May embracing humanity, both Ruth's and his own, and treating her not as an illness, but an equal human being. He empowers her to live through and ultimately understand her experiences thus enabling her to find ways to manage them and carry on living.
Trevor Turner offers us the voice of Psychiatry, confirming that if he were to have a patient displaying the same "symptoms" as Ruth he wouldn't hesitate in sectioning her, and forcing her to take medication, even if that meant her being restrained and forcibly injected. This would not only rob her of her humanity and dignity, but would right off any chance she has of ever finding employment as a Dr, thus robbing her of her dream and her future too. Something that Trevor is all to aware of telling us that the stigma of a mental health diagnosis is so great that he advises his patients not to disclose it on application forms as if they do they are unlikely to even make it to interview! What a different story this would be if Ruth had indeed been his patient! I for one am very glad she wasn't.
Leo Regan skillfully brings this story to life for us, weaving reenacted scenes with real life footage. His honest reactions and questions are sometimes clumsy triggering Ruth's voice and leaving her more vulnerable reminding us that Rufus does actually know what he is doing and is skilled in the way he approaches Ruth and her voice.
It is brave and honest in the way it gives us access to both the highs and lows of their therapeutic relationship, allowing us to feel first hand a little of the emotional roller coaster that any such journey is. Rufus gives us himself as he is in each moment, exposing not just his strength, but also at times his weakness. It is for me exactly this that enables me to respect and trust him, he never tries to deceive instead he offers himself openly.
For me the fear is not that Ruth will be an unsafe Dr, if anything I think this experience will have only added to her competence. It is not that Rufus took too many risks or was unorthodox in his approach. My fear lies in the thought that we are being deprived of practitioners like Ruth and Rufus who have a perspective that is so needed in our health care system, they are experts not just through training, but through experience also. They are exactly the kind of people I'd want to be taking care of me."
Mind's Claire Ashby said: "This is an eye-opening documentary that challenges traditional perspectives about the treatment of mental health problems ... It's excellent that Channel 4 has dedicated a primetime programme to this controversial subject and we hope it will raise public awareness and understanding about what it's really like to live with the experience of hearing voices."
If you would like to hear Radio 4's Mark Lawson interviewing myself and film maker Leo Regan on Front Row about making this documentary click here. Mark Lawson introduced Front Row by asking "Is schizophrenia a fiction?" He then described how the programme "argues for a radical new approach to treating the mind" going on later to call "The Doctor who hears voices" a "powerful and unusual film". Its a thoughtful interview: It was nice to see Leo Regan being interviewed and the shoe being on the other foot.
Over a million people watched the documentary and looking at the web it seems to have stirred up a lot of dialogue and debate about how we treat confusion and distress which can only be a good thing, I think.
In the film itself I am described as a 'Maverick Psychologist' but I feel it is important to say that there is whole school of maverick psychology to which I belong; the international Hearing Voices movement. This movement is combined of voice hearers, therapists and academics all on an equal footing. The original Maverick refused to brand his cattle, we similarly refuse to brand people as 'schizophrenic' when they hear voices, instead looking at the voices as messengers about peoples lives. In the film I am shown talking to Ruth's voices. This pioneering approach comes directly from my training with members of the international voice hearing movement. This includes Marius Romme, Sandra Escher, Ron Coleman and Dirk Coerstens, to name but a few. We are an underground network of people who believe we should listen to voices. The film takes this movement to a new audience. Perhaps one day around the world we will all listen to voices!
So, big thanks to the Hearing Voices movement for inspiring us. Special appreciation to my partner Rebecca, for her support. Thankyou also to Leo Regan, Kudos films, Ruth Wilson, Channel 4 and most of all the 'real Ruth' for bringing this true story into people's homes.
I guess for me the film raises a number questions such as:
Why do people feel they have to lie to the mental health professionals supposed to be helping them?
Why if you are in a crisis there is nowhere in the UK to go where you can choose whether or not to take drugs and real alternatives are available?
Can we move towards a society that is more accepting of diverse experiences like hearing voices and willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue about them?
Why is the fact that mental health problems are rooted in experiences of social injustice and tragedy denied by mainstream psychiatry?
Does the pharmaceutical industry currently have too much influence on how our society approaches emotional crises and distress?