On March 23 & 24 two focus groups were convened to review Episode L504 and Episode L505 of a new ABC television series called Wonderland . The first group was composed of 12 adults over the age of 18. Eight were female and four were male. Participant's ages ranged from 23 to 54. Five participants in the group have personal experience with a serious mental illness either as a patient/consumer or as a family member of a person with a serious mental illness. All participants watch adult night-time dramas as part of their regular television viewing. The groups were moderated by a trained facilitator.
The series is based in a criminal psychiatric emergency room unit in a New York City hospital. The first episode shown to the group included portrayals of a patient that had shot civilians in Times Square and stabbed a pregnant doctor with a needle. This patient kills himself after receiving medical care. The episode also contained the story of an elderly couple being evaluated for possible psychiatric disorders. The second episode focused on the story of a comic diagnosed with bi-polar disorder that refuses medical treatment and a woman with a rare brain disorder that causes uncontrolled passionate desires and an elevated sense of taste.
Participants were given the choice of returning to watch the second episode. Only four of the focus group participants that watched the first episode chose to watch the second episode. One new participant joined the second group. Participants with no known involvement or knowledge of serious mental illness were debriefed separately from those with experience and knowledge of these disorders.
After screening of the first episode half of the participants had some favorable comments about the show and half had mild-to-strong negative first impressions.
None of the participants (non-experienced and experienced) said they enjoyed the show enough to make it part of their regular television viewing. Comments ranged from a lack of interest in the main characters ("They seem like they are trying to be like ER, but these doctors aren't interesting.") to lack of interest in the subject matter ("Too depressing.", "Characters are scary", "Don't want to watch these kinds of people.")
Of the various characters, only the elderly couple from the first episode previewed elicited interest and empathy from the group participants ("They are like my grand-parents," "I know what they are going through").
Non-experienced participants said that the shows portrayal of those with mental illness was not different then their general view. These participants did not distinguish the shows special setting (a psychiatric forensic unit) from more traditional health care settings for the mentally ill.
Those with experience with serious mental illness had the strongest negative response to the program. "No hope" "Not realistic" "Depressing" "Shocking" "This show makes fun of people with mental illness and is using them for amusement" "I wouldn't want my son (w/mental illness) to watch this program" "The suicide could trigger others watching this". One participant (with a history of hospitalization for mental illness) left the room. It was later found that this individual sought emergency counseling.
In general this show will have a hard time finding a general audience. It's "no hope" message and focus on extremes in psychiatric disorders may have a hard time attracting viewers. The lack of interesting empathetic characters (either patients or doctors) will probably be this show's greatest challenge in building an audience.
NAMI should pay special attention to the impact this show may have on persons living with a serious mental illness. The graphic depiction of suicides, the repeating message of the show that there is little hope, the lack of explanation that this is an extreme setting and the unsympathetic doctors may all serve to discourage those in need of treatment from seeking treatment and create a need for counseling among those in treatment. Medical professionals should also be consulted to evaluate the copy-cat/suggestive nature of the suicide.
We'd be happy to discuss these findings with you in more detail.
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