Critics have raved about Wakefield, the ABC’s new drama set inside a fictional psychiatric hospital in the Blue Mountains.
But Jacinta, a mental health social worker who has worked inside actual psychiatric facilities in New South Wales, wasn’t sold so easily at first.
She usually steers clear of TV shows and movies about mental health care. They’re either frustrating because they feel like work, or they’re frustrated because they are so far off the mark.
“[I relented on Wakefield] because people who work in mental health told me it’s actually good,” she says.
“I watched the whole season in just a couple of days.”
Matthew*, 48, who has had a week-long stay in a psychiatric ward for depression, followed a similar path: “You know how physicists will watch Deep Impact and go ‘Nah, that’s not how gravity works? I kind of wanted to watch [Wakefield] to see what the assumptions were.
“But it’s probably the best representation of mental illness that I’ve seen.”
So what is it that other films and TV shows are getting so wrong?
Myth 1: People in a psych ward are ‘crazy’
“People kind of assume everyone’s drugged up to the nines — that they’re CRAZY,” Matthew says.
It’s a phenomenon he traces from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to thrillers like 12 Monkeys.
“[In my experience] it wasn’t a bunch of colorful characters with their kooky schemes,” he says.
“It was mainly a lot of hurt people sitting quietly. And Wakefield was one of the better portrayals of that.”
The series tells the intersecting stories of multiple patients and staff at Wakefield psychiatric hospital. James (Dan Wyllie) is a spiraling businessman urgently trying to close a deal.
Genevieve (Harriet Dyer) is slipping in and out of a sex-obsessed psychosis. Nik (Rudi Dharmalingam), the best nurse in the facility and probably the “kookiest” of the lot is dealing with problems of his own — he has a song in his head that slowly and bizarrely encroaches on every aspect of his life.
“I really, really liked how they did the backstory for each character,” Jacinta adds.
“Many see people with psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar as ‘crazy’ people — that their psychosis is the primary thing about them, rather than the fact they’re a person who has dreams and aspirations as well.”
Matthew agrees: “If someone is unwell, that doesn’t mean they’re dead.”
“They still have families and careers and lives and lusts and interests and hobbies and frustrations which are completely separate to the fact they have something weird happening in their skull.”
Myth 2: People with a mental illness are dangerous
“There’s still so much stigma around mental illness,” Jacinta says.
“Especially on things like psychosis [which are seen as] dangerous or unpredictable.”
While she notes there’s been a significant effort to destigmatize depression and anxiety — on screen and in life — many people still feel uncomfortable walking past someone on the street with schizophrenia.
This is why she loved Trevor’s story. He’s a “young bogan guy” who can quickly jump to hostility.
But you get to see his vulnerability too: he wants to go to his nephew’s soccer match, he has a crush on a girl in a shop down the road.
“There can be such a tendency to leave that character as just an ‘angry young male’, without exploring any of his feelings as well,” Jacinta says.
Myth 3: All psych wards are scary
There have been entire books written about our collective fear of psychiatric hospitals.
In his 2019 book Nightmare Factories, Professor Troy Rondinone described them as “monstrous prison houses” that have been “created in our imagination”.
He watched hundreds of films in which they were portrayed as sites of violence, horror and torture.
But in Matthew’s experience, it was “mainly just a bunch of people on couches watching telly”.
That’s more sad than scary. And the real downside is the feeling of disempowerment, he says.
Matthew recalls having very limited agency and very basic facilities in his public NSW Health unit.
“When you need that kind of emergency care, all your autonomy is gone,” he says.
“You don’t have your phone. You certainly don’t have your computer … I found that excruciating and infantilizing.”
After 10 years in the sector, Jacinta agrees this is a problem.
“I really really liked that [Wakefield] highlighted some of the power imbalances and frustrations encountered by patients,” she says.
“For example, they wait all week for a doctor’s appointment, and then the doctors are late. Or something happens and then their status is changed; they lose their leave entitlements.
“A mental health ward is an important place to go to get better, but at the same time there are things that can disenfranchise patients.”
Myth 4: You’re alone in your struggle
Matthew appreciated that the series shows how these mental illnesses affect not just the patients but also their partners, parents, and children.
Genevieve’s husband, for instance, tries to support her as her psychosis leads her to have sex with other men.
James’s son pleads with him to stay in the facility to get better.
“In a lot of other portrayals, the story is about the person with the illness or the people treating them but, in reality, this affects other people,” Matthew says.
Jacinta also loved how the series included the staff’s experiences.
“In my experience, there is definitely mental health staff who are experiencing mental health issues as well,” she says.
“There is a whole shift in the field towards including people with lived experience in a treating team: people who actually use their lived experience to connect and support patients or clients.”
Matthew feels hopeful this kind of representation will help normalize mental illness.
“They showed it’s a matter of degree,” he says. “Just about everybody suffers from some kind of problem.”
*Name changed for privacy reasons.