CHANNEL 4’s House of Agoraphobics, which airs in December, breaks new ground in the depiction of mental health issues on television. It shows the lives of three people who only felt safe at home, and the therapy that got them out again.
Shattering the idea that successful people are safe from anxiety, the programme profiles three people who had once been successful: Su who used to have a great career in finance until she got agoraphobia, Simon, who was a successful graphic design artist, and Archana, a medic studying to be a GP.
A team of expert psychologists led by Professor Paul Salkovskis from the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma in London is called in to treat the participants’ problem and to help them and the viewer understand the root of it all.
The programme is similar to House of Obsessive Compulsives on Channel 4 last year (see www.bps.org.uk/yyzr), as were the headlines and media interest generated long before its broadcast. The first article, ‘Housebound Hell’, appeared in the Mail on Sunday on 22 October.
The article, like the programme, focused more on the sufferers and their fears than the nitty-gritty treatment (cognitive behaviour therapy) that got them out of the house. But the team was continually carrying out its treatment, both on camera and off. ‘A lot of it wasn’t shown,’ Paul Salkovskis told me. ‘Because good therapy typically does not make good TV. A high proportion of it is calm and unspectacular. You can’t depict it in a two-minute segment.’
The programme very successfully shows the diverse roots of agoraphobia. Su’s developed after a panic attack on a bus six years ago and was linked to hearing loud noises. Simon’s developed after his marriage split up and he lost his job and friends. Archana’s developed a few years ago, after she had a panic attack while driving on the M4. These links were crucial in helping the sufferers to take what many would consider baby steps forward.
The programme is poignant in showing the extent to which agoraphobia can ruin someone’s life. Su could not take her eight-year-old daughter to school, let alone to the playground. Archana couldn’t make the journey to see her husband who worked in another town. Simon had gone back to live with his parents, who seemed to think he just needed to pull himself together. Yet even a short way into the programme, viewers can see that agoraphobia is not a loose pair of socks you easily pull up.
When asked if he was happy with the programme and what it showed about agoraphobia and its treatment, Paul Salkovskis said, ‘Moderately happy.
The programme made it look a lot more dramatic and stressful than this kind of treatment actually is.’
But are there problems with using television as a forum to show treatment? The team thought so. Blake Stobie, one of the psychologists on the programme, said ‘There are many elements to consider. You have to balance someone’s desire to receive treatment with their desire to be on television, and ensure they’re fully informed of the consequences of media exposure. Another thing is the treatment’s not private. There’s always a camera crew a few feet away. So, creating opportunities where patients are on their own to test their fears is more difficult than in standard treatment.’
Choosing clients and treating them on TV requires a lot of groundwork and behind the scenes safeguards of which we are often unaware. One such safeguard was a daily review of the footage. Both patients and psychologists were free to decide that certain material should not be included in the programme. ‘This meant that people weren’t monitoring what they said,’ says Paul Salkovskis, ‘and this was helpful for treatment to progress.’
Despite the tension between what makes good TV and what makes good therapy, without doubt, watching House of Agoraphobics will be a first step towards getting help for many people housebound with anxiety.
THE media have always been hungry for psychology, but have also been quick to turn their noses up at our offerings when that in itself makes a better story. Recently there have been signs of change – Is psychology finally becoming admired and respected?
In August 2004, concerned about the tone and volume of media coverage about A-level psychology as a soft option, a small group of Society members and staff was established as defenders of the discipline. In 2005 during the A-level results period eight articles were responded to, but this year just three articles appeared which required a response. Douglas Brown, the Society’s Public Relations Manager, said: ‘It is unlikely that this issue has now completely disappeared, but the drop in critical coverage is a positive sign that the message is getting through.’
But it’s not just the absence of negative – some coverage these days is positively positive! November saw an article in New Statesman (see tinyurl.com/yeytzh) which highlighted how ‘professionals from all walks of life are picking up on psychology as a potential career-change booster’. It points out that in 2005, for the first time, the number of psychology graduates overtook those graduating in English. Clinical psychology vies with chemistry as the largest single PhD subject.
Despite the obligatory nod to the ‘Cracker effect’ (has anyone actually subjected that to empirical scrutiny?), the piece was generally thoughtful and positive about the growth of psychology. The ‘easy option’ claim was addressed directly, with Dr Simon Green (Birkbeck College, and the Society’s Psychology Education Board) pointing out that if psychology is taught correctly, there is a strong statistical element to it, in addition to its neuroscience and brain-function components – it is not simply sitting around discussing why people behave as they do.
Have our readers found that this newfound respect has filtered through to them yet?
BPS Members can discuss this article
Already a member? Or Create an account
Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber