When did you last hear someone say, "I think I'm depressed"? Or nonchalantly deliver an amateur diagnosis of OCD or an eating disorder of a colleague, say? Allusions to mental illness – and to specific, medical classifications way beyond "crazy" – trip off our tongues nowadays. So it was strange that much of the publicity around Channel 4's "4 Goes Mad" season that kicked off last week, focused on a supposed taboo around discussing mental health issues. We might be using the terminology incorrectly, abusively even, but we can barely shut up about what's going on in our own or other people's heads.
That was good news for Ruby Wax's Mad Confessions. Wax did her big reveal a few years ago, when she fronted a charity campaign identifying herself as one of the 25 per cent of people in this country to suffer from a mental health condition – in her case, depression.
Here, in between some signature setpieces, such as running around the Priory pointing out spots where "the anorexics left their food and we would steal it", she sent out a Twitter request for people with successful careers and mental health issues, who'd be prepared to reveal their condition to colleagues – on camera, natch. There wasn't a shortage of volunteers. Wax's final three – a chef, a marketing exec, and an industrial designer – were high-flyers with nice families who seemed relatively relaxed about detailing their difficulties, whether OCD or depression. Their confessions to colleagues went off well, and I suspect it wasn't just an effect of the camera. This was, it has to be said, mental illness viewed via a middle-class prism – serious to be sure, but in these circles depression and stress increasingly have a conversational currency, even if it's of a shallow kind. So it offered neither the demographic nor the mental health conditions for confronting taboos around the subject.
If the ethics of Wax's programme seemed fraught, it had nothing on The World's Maddest Job Interview, in which eight contestants – some of whom have mental health conditions – vied for a theoretical job from a trio of hardcore business bods, among them that scary guy who does the interviews in The Apprentice, Claude Littner. All three confessed to reservations about employing anyone with a history of mental illness, so naturally the twist was that they weren't told who were the sufferers ("those who have been touched by madness" as the voiceover put it) and non-sufferers.
Unapologetic in its trashy reality approach (Apprentice-meets-Dragons' Den-meets-Playing it Straight), it aimed, no doubt, to pull in people who wouldn't tune in to worthier documentary fare. Certainly, the subject – enabling those with a history of mental illness to get back into the workplace – is important, but everything about this felt beside the point.
No spoilers, in case you plan to catch up, but I doubt anyone will be shocked to learn that the corporate brains ended up selecting a few people who'd previously suffered from mental-health issues, again OCD and depression, as favourites. All had proven themselves intelligent, competent and charming. Hurrah! A victory over prejudice! Well, not really. Discrimination here has less to do with stigma or misguided fear than cold-eyed capitalism.
Just as some employers look at women of a particular age and see "maternity leave" in neon above their heads, their concern isn't that these people are raging loons 24/7, but the not inconceivable possibility of a relapse. Had you put these people through their paces when in the throes of an acute phase of their condition, their capacity to do their job would have been completely different. That's not a justification for discrimination, but obscuring the real problem meant the grounds for the gimmicks felt shaky indeed.
Billionaire mobile-phone mogul John Caudwell was jokily pitched the question "Are you mad?" in The Angel, another Apprentice rip-off, less controversial but also devoid of humour or suspense.
In each episode Caudwell, the titular "angel", selects one of five budding "entreprenoors" (as presenter Amanda Byram likes to say – often) for a £100,000 investment in their business – the unhinged element being that he doesn't know what that business is and claims to be judging on personality alone.
Last week, Hermione, who described herself as "Mark Zuckerberg with breasts", got the cash. Caudwell will donate the profits to charity, which is jolly nice, but since he eliminated one contestant for not taking the opportunity to slate another, he has pretty interesting ideas on what constitutes good character.
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