I wish to complain about the portrayal of the mental health problems experienced by the character Mr Barber in ‘Big School’, on 29/08/2014.
Stigmatised language is littered throughout the show. For example: “Barber’s gone mental”, “How’s your lunacy?”, and “Oi, fruit loop”. The use of these terms further normalise a culture of harassment against people with mental illness. One character says “you can’t say that” in response, but this is little more than lip service and is dismissed by all. The joke is still very much at the expense of Mr Barber.
Mr Barber continuously displays ‘strange’ behaviour, such as eating a bun from a bin and misunderstanding a request from another character. In one anecdote - “They found him crawling round the playing fields, at night, naked from the waist down. He had a soil thermometer wedged in his….”. While unusual activity can be humorous in and of itself, if mental illness is implied to be the cause it serves only to reinforce prejudice. Mental illness is not synonymous with social and logical inappropriateness.
Following on from this, Mr Barber approaches the teachers through an open window, with the line:
“I’m starving, haven’t eaten since Tuesday, and that was a conker.”
He is then fed through the window, almost biting another character’s fingers. He is treated literally like an animal at the zoo. Given the history of those with mental health problems being presented in lunatic asylums and freak shows, and continuing to be subjected to subhuman treatment, this is incredibly offensive.
In another scene, Mr Barber approaches the Headteacher:
“I just wanted to say a big thanks for giving me a second chance after my… interlude”
“Well, sadly, these days one can’t sack someone for going… [SHE CACKLES MANIACALLY]”.
Mr Barber refers to his psychiatric crisis with embarrassment, and it is not questioned that he must apologise for it. The Headteacher is supposed to be an unpleasant character, but there is no opposition provided provided to her discriminatory view.
Additionally, Mr Barber appears only within the context of a “mentally ill” person, with no other character traits. He is treated by all as a one dimensional being, who has nothing to offer to the world, as a direct result of his problems. In the following scene, he is dismissed both for having aspirations and for claiming to be “good at cheering people up”:
“It’s given me a clear idea of what I’d like to be. A wacky weatherman. I think I’d be very good at cheering people up in the morning.”
“Er, good luck with that.”
The assumption that those with mental health problems are incapable is a myth, and should not be implied to be true.
Any attempt at viewing these as irony, fail. There are no points at which any character actually sympathises with Mr Barber, or shows the viewer that what has been said is unacceptable. Given that nine out of ten people with mental illness experience discrimination and prejudice, we are not a point where the negative effects of such stigma is common knowledge. Mental health disableism is very real, and I am concerned that shows like this are allowed to so readily reinforce harmful attitudes.