Dr Sivabalan tells TNM how such portrayals do great damage to public perceptions of the mentally ill.

Bigg Boss sells harmful cliches on mental health Psychiatrist slams show comments on OviyaScreengrab/Hotstar
Flix Entertainment Friday, August 04, 2017 - 18:11

In Tamil Nadu, it’s nearly impossible to talk about television without talking about the popular reality TV show Bigg Boss. The unprecedented popularity of one its contestants, Oviya, has made even people who weren’t initially interested in the show tune in. However, this week, the show took a turn that has widely been criticised by mental health professionals. 

For this week’s challenge, the contestants in the house have been asked to dress up and act like the inhabitants of a "mental hospital". While a few of the housemates have been turned into a doctor, ward boy, nurse and attender, the others have been assigned to play mentally ill patients wearing green gowns.

But mental illness has been a subject of discussion around the show even before this challenge. Oviya, who's been an absolute favourite with the public, appears to be quite emotionally disturbed. She has repeatedly made romantic overtures to Arav, another contestant, and has refused to back off even after he'd told her to. Some days ago, Oviya had made a remark to host Kamal Haasan that she is ‘bipolar’. Now this has led to active speculation about her mental health, using her recent behaviour as ‘evidence’.

The format of the show, which aims to capture the true personalities and behaviour of the contestants under surveillance, means that politically incorrect statements will be made and transmitted. But the introduction of the "mental hospital" structure has been done by the show’s organisers. It is a deliberate premise that has been created. 

Dr Sivabalan, a psychiatrist and Associate Professor at SRM University, spoke to TNM about his concerns regarding the portrayal of mental health on the show.

"We always think of mental illness in the extreme. We believe that these patients are dangerous or we make fun of them. This is how they are portrayed in the mainstream. We've been talking about mental health for the last 200 years. Nobody is immune to mental illnesses," says Dr Sivabalan. 

The doctor notes that a person afflicted with dengue is not referred to as a "dengue patient" for the rest of his life. However, someone who has gone through a mental illness is stigmatised for life, no matter what the illness is. 

He explains that just as every physical illness is not cancer, it's dangerous to club all mental illnesses together and stigmatise those who are under treatment or wish to seek help. 

On the show, as soon as it was announced that the inmates would have to act like the mentally ill, one of the contestants, Raiza, quipped, "Oh ‘loose’aa?! Okay!"

Dr Sivabalan points out that using such labels is extremely damaging to the mentally ill. 

"There are two big consequences because of this. In mental hospitals, there are many people who are fully cured but their families don't want to take them back. This is because they believe they are dangerous and don't want anything to do with them. It's difficult for a family with a person who has a history of mental illness to find a bride or groom for others in the family. They are also denied houses on rent. The other impact is that those who feel mentally disturbed and want to take help feel discouraged by such portrayals. They feel they will be treated like this by society," says Dr Sivabalan. 

He notes that it's common for people to use phrases like "That guy is a psycho!" when referring to someone who behaves aggressively. On the show, Vayapuri, who plays the doctor, exclaims, "Paathaley asingama iruku!" (It's disgusting to even see you!") to a contestant who plays a patient. 

"Previously, we used to call mental hospitals as "asylums". This is because the perception was that society should be protected from the mentally ill. However, that has changed and we're looking to integrate patients with society. Such shows, serials, and films greatly influence public perception and are barriers to integrating even cured patients with their families and society," he says. 

The Bigg Boss contestants also fell back to the usual clichés when depicting treatment for the mentally ill by showing "shock" therapy, using equipment which was provided by the organisers. 

Dr Sivabalan says that psychiatry is a field where more research has been done in the last few years than any other medical field. 

"A lot of conditions can now be treated with drugs. ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy, commonly called shock therapy) is used as a last resort. It all depends on the severity of the condition. It can be effective in the end stages. Just as we go for radiotherapy in cancer," he says. 

Apart from turning the mentally ill into subjects for comedy, the show also propagates misconceptions and misinformation. 

Dr Sivabalan says that Snehan's in-challenge character, that of a man who cross-dresses because his "family" forced him to wear the clothes of a girl as a child, is a completely wrong depiction of transgender persons or those who wish to cross-dress. 

Stating that it is wrong to conflate trans persons and those who cross-dress with the mentally ill, he adds, "Everyone blames upbringing or family environment for all this. But it is not so at all. Nobody will start feeling and behaving like another gender just because their family put them in such clothes." 

He further adds that research points to genetic rather than environmental factors for most mental illnesses, including schizophrenia or even depression. 

Dr Sivabalan also says that it’s unnecessary for viewers or participants to make any sort of diagnosis on Oviya’s mental condition.

"A show like this, if it is really not scripted, brings to the forefront the real personalities of people. They are living in a closed environment and it brings out the survival instinct in each. Some do this by getting along with everyone, some choose not to react to anything and keep others at a distance, some try to assert their personality over that of others. It also depends on the different tolerance levels of people," says Dr Sivabalan. 

He also adds that an obese person cannot be called healthy, but may not have any diseases. Similarly, even if someone appears not to be in the best of mental health, it doesn't mean that they are ill. 

While the behaviour of the contestants cannot be expected to be sensitive or sensible all the time, the organisers of Bigg Boss can surely re-consider how they choose to inject humour or novelty on the show.

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