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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mental on Fox

Last night I sat down to watch the pilot episode of Fox's new medical drama, Mental. Dr. Jack Gallagher (played by Chris Vance, Prison Break) becomes the new Director of Mental Health Services at Wharton Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. His ways are, shall we say, unorthodox. To treat a schizophrenic patient, he takes him off his medications and gives him a pad of paper to draw. He sends a couple of resident physicians out into the field to get more information about the patient and he is even caught by police breaking into the patient's house to try to find the answers he needs.

Now before you get all worked up about the similarities between Mental and House (which do seem, at first look, to be myriad), listen to what Chris Vance has to say about his character, Jack: "The two characters are very, very different,” Jack is at completely the opposite end of the spectrum in the way he approaches a patient and patient care. Jack is completely off the wall. I don’t think you have seen anything like it. So I think from that point of view, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

“Playing Jack", says Vance, "I’m never likely to get bored because there’s always another phobia, there’s always another psychosis. There’s always something that we don’t understand. The science of treating mental health as we understand it, it’s still in its infancy. We really know very little about it, which is the fascinating thing. It obviously opened my eyes and my mind to all of the phobias, disorders and the real pain and the trauma that people with mental health disorders go through in life.”

By telling the story of a different mentally ill patient in each episode, the show seeks to put a more human face on the mentally ill, making us care more about what happens to them and introducing us to the radical notion that the mentally ill are people, too. The show challenges traditional treatments and the one-treatment-is-right-for-all theory.

I'm also hoping the show delves into the mistreatment of patients at mental institutions. Though treatment today is a far cry from what mental patients endured during the middle ages (bloodletting, being chained in dungeons and burnt at the stake), there is still a good deal of abuse occurring behind the closed doors of the wards.

Former patient of Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, Meghan Boland, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was dragged into a bathroom, pushed down, and kicked in the face with a boot by staff members, all over an incident with another patient over some food. "I was treated like I was just an animal," Boland said. "And I wasn't. I was sick, and I needed help. I needed to learn about my mental illness."

An excerpt from a National Council on Disability Report states that "as many as 81% of women with psychiatric disabilities have been physically or sexually abused in institutions." (Thomas R. Harmon, Director of Medical Review and Investigations, NYS Commission on Quality of Care).

According to Susan Stefan, J.D., National Council on Disability, "I have interviewed many, many people with psychiatric disabilities, and sent a survey to thousands of people, literally, and received hundreds of surveys back, and what the surveys are saying and what the interviews are saying are that people are dying, being injured, and sexually assaulted in institutions. They're being ignored and overmedicated. They're dying and being damaged in restraints. When I tried to relate the individual stories that I was getting to the research and data out in the field, what I discovered is that there is no research, or that it is terribly, terribly difficult to put together, or that it is virtually useless. The voices of people with psychiatric disabilities are silenced. Their stories are dismissed as anecdotal, because of choices we [researchers] make about what information must be gathered and what information must be systematically ignored."

The voices of the mentally ill need to be heard, and I'm happy that FOX's new show, Mental, seeks to shine a light on those in our population who are so vulnerable. And if that's not reason enough to take a look at Mental, Chris Vance's sexy British accent and perpetual cuteness should be enough to twist your arm!

The next episode of Mental airs this Tuesday, June 2nd, and has Jack and his team dealing with a young woman suffering Pregnancy Hysteria. Check it out!

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