How Mad Are You or Is It How Mad Am I?

Anyone who has watched the recent series of television programmes will be aware that an experiment was conducted with 10 people living together in a house being watched by a team of mental health professionals as they undertook tests designed to elicit evidence as to which of the team had a diagnosis of mental disorder and which had not. This was a mixture of Reality TV with all its voyeuristic aspects; a detective genre with personality identification; investigative journalism putting professionals on the spot; and educational information giving and myth dispelling.

So did it work as a project? How well did the professionals do? What did it prove?

The first thing that became apparent was that the 10 people comprised carefully selected individuals. Five were deemed to reflect the normal population whereas the other five had suffered from and been treatment for a significant mental disorder. However, to be part of the research the latter group out of necessity had to be stable enough to participate. Each of the individuals had been diagnosed and received treatment and was either stabilised enough to be able to take part or had moved on from the acute phase of their condition.

The professionals identified two people accurately based on the observations and test results but when asked to choose the most normal person of the group chose an individual who had previously been a sufferer much to that person’s glee. They also failed to identify the condition she had suffered from along with the other two remaining past sufferers. In fact, they identified two of the normal control group as having suffered from a mental disorder much to the dismay of at least one of them.

The series did prove an excellent point: that it is very hard to distinguish between someone who has been diagnosed, treated and recovered or stabilised and a member of the general public. This is especially the case as all of us have quirkiness in our personalities to the degree that some aspect may seem a little strange to someone else. It also shows the danger of labelling without the full knowledge of a person’s situation – labels once attached have a knack of sticking and one of the concerns about this project was that those who had previously been labelled would either be re-labelled or given a clear bill of health whereas any of the normal group never previously labelled might as it did with two of them be deemed to present as not being normal.

There is a continuum of mental health from health to ill health and then to extreme distress. We all have the potential to move along this continuum at different stages of our lives dependant on life events and internal changes in the mind. Often it is only those in extreme distress that are easy to identify. Those in the middle ground will comprise people who just cope but manage to avoid diagnosis and those who just go one step beyond and require professional help. Once treated most people find themselves moving back along the continuum into the middle ground or good health.

Jonathan Clark, 20/11/2008