When we make documentary films we seek to understand people on a very personal, intimate level. This meant that our journey into SLaM forensic services was always going to be fascinating. From start to finish it felt like a big responsibility and a privilege.
One misconception we had was that perhaps it would be difficult to like and respect the patients. It wasn’t. And while we never forgot that they had traumatised people in the outside world, that didn’t prevent us from making strong connections with them.
Another preconception was that maybe the threat of violence would be ever-present. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was immediately striking how harmonious many of the wards felt, particularly those on which patients were enjoying frequent periods on leave.
Understandably, it was only a minority of patients that volunteered to take part in the films. Despite this, it was the vast majority who still wanted to engage with us as people, whether or not they took interest in the filmmaking. We were strangers in their temporary homes, but were made to feel welcome.
Having been accommodated on six different wards, my prevailing memory of the hospital is of a shared humanity – a very different feeling to what many newspaper headlines might make you feel. There was of course hurt, aggression, anger, frustration, tension, confusion and all the other emotions you would expect in forensic services – especially when people are locked on wards for long periods. But the staff have skilfully engendered an ethos of mutual respect. And a forward, future-facing belief in better times ahead.
While we couldn’t include all of them in the films, we got to know the multi-disciplinary roles, psychological treatments and occupational therapies. One wondered what would be possible with increased funding, manpower and stigma-reducing projects such as the Bethlem Gallery.
The word always associated with mental illness is ‘stigma’ and I recall a patient advising us at the beginning of our research: “Don’t call it mental illness, call it mental wellness”.
Our series can ultimately only scratch the surface of the forensic world, but hopefully it has nudged the ball forward, and it will keep rolling.