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Men­tal health hasn’t had what you’d call a re­lat­able por­trayal on TV. Sure, plenty of shows have tack­led men­tal ill­nesses and as­so­ci­ated dis­or­ders, and of­ten in award­win­ning style – Home­land’s Car­rie Mathi­son (Claire Danes) is a bril­liant CIA agent who hap­pens to have bipo­lar dis­or­der and Jes­sica Jones’ ti­tle char­ac­ter (Krys­ten Rit­ter) is a pri­vate de­tec­tive bat­tling post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD). But what is it like for ev­ery­day peo­ple liv­ing with a long-term, po­ten­tially de­bil­i­tat­ing men­tal ill­ness or dis­or­der? Al­most 50 per cent of us will ex­pe­ri­ence some form of men­tal health is­sue dur­ing our life­time, but we’re not fight­ing ter­ror­ism or cur­ing can­cer, we’re just out there liv­ing aver­age lives, do­ing ev­ery­day stuff and get­ting on with things.

Re­fresh­ingly, new two-part se­ries How ‘Mad’ Are You? (starts Thurs., Oct. 11 at 8.30pm on SBS) pretty much nails what it’s like to be one of these peo­ple and shines a more re­al­is­tic light on men­tal health – how it is di­ag­nosed and what it means to be liv­ing with a di­ag­no­sis. Over the two episodes, 10 par­tic­i­pants head to a re­treat for a week and take part in a se­ries of stud­ies, cam­eras film­ing them along the way. Five peo­ple in the ex­per­i­ment have been di­ag­nosed as be­ing men­tally un­well; five have not, and it’s up to a group of three men­tal health ex­perts to fig­ure out who’s who.

Some­one in the group has been di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia, one had an eat­ing dis­or­der so bad they once feared drink­ing wa­ter, there’s some­one among the 10 with OCD and an­other who suf­fers from bipo­lar dis­or­der. The last of the five suf­fers from crip­pling so­cial anx­i­ety. But here’s the thing: not one of them stands out. No-one knows who in the group is “mad” and who is to­tally “nor­mal.” And that’s en­tirely the point – that the line be­tween men­tal health and men­tal ill­ness is a fine one in­deed.

How ‘Mad’ Are You? sounds like it should be a thor­oughly irk­some show – af­ter all, who wants to sit around watch­ing peo­ple be­ing judged and cri­tiqued for be­ing men­tally un­well, call­ing them out on it and con­fronting them? Yeah, not me. But this se­ries ac­tu­ally says some­thing re­ally im­por­tant about the fact that men­tal health is of­ten dif­fi­cult to iden­tify. Also, it shows that once you’ve sought help, it is to­tally rea­son­able to ex­pect to live a pretty nor­mal life. You could even take part in a show like this, and a panel of two psy­chi­a­trists and one psy­chol­o­gist wouldn’t be able to tell you’ve ever had a prob­lem.

For that rea­son, it’s worth a look. The par­tic­i­pants aren’t fight­ing off the Tal­iban or sin­gle-hand­edly do­ing open-heart surgery on a guy with noth­ing more than a ball­point pen and a bot­tle of duty free gin, they’re just liv­ing their lives. Good on SBS for de­pict­ing this.

From left: Prof Tim Carey, Jan Mac­in­tire and Prof Jayashri Kulka­rni try to de­ter­mine how ‘mad’ 10 par­tic­i­pants are.

Jes­sica Jones has been praised for its re­al­is­tic por­trayal of PTSD.

Danes’ por­trayal of a CIA agent with bipo­lar dis­or­der has earned her two Emmy Awards.

Clare Rig­den

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