Film and medicine – a perfect match

I am lucky enough – ridiculously lucky! – to be a co-lead this year for Medfest, the medical film festival happening next spring. People may be familiar with it already, from last years fantastic events!

But here’s a brief intro for the benefit of those who haven’t heard of it. It’s a collection of evening events all over the country in February. They are generally held in medical schools, & usually organised by medical students interested in mental health. The audience watch a collection of short films, all based around the theme of mental health, & discuss the questions they’ve raised, & what we can learn from it. There’s also a panel of people at each event, of varying backgrounds – psychiatrists, filmmakers, patients, philosophers, for example – at each event to talk about their thoughts & what they got from the films. It’s been going since 2011 & has been bigger each year. Khurram Sadiq & I are going to do everything we can to make it a fabulous event. You can have a look at the website here for more info about previous years. It’s mostly funded by the Royal College of Psychiatrists – the ultimate aim is to get people talking about mental health, & also to get medical students interested in psychiatry as a career. This paper talked about the effectiveness of the festival in getting medical students thinking about psychiatry.

Ever since films existed, they have regularly featured themes of health & illness. Of course this is inevitable, as it’s a universal human interest. It’s been used for the passing on of medical knowledge – one of the first instances of this was when Eugene-Louis Doyen, a French surgeon, filmed some of his surgical techniques (starting in 1898) to improve his own performance & help others learn. Walter G Chase in Boston used film to learn & teach about the features of epileptic seizures in 1905. Teaching using film is now routine in medical schools – we had a selection of films of patients showed to us only last week in our neurology teaching session.

Film is also used regularly for public education, & in advertising treatments, especially medications. You only have to look at some of the adverts for pharmaceutical products in the US to see that film isn’t always used with pure motives. This page has more about how TV drug ads are so frequently misleading.

And of course, as entertainment. Some of the most popular films and television series ever made have health & medicine as its storylines. House, ER, Scrubs & Greys Anatomy have all been hugely popular, as well as the brilliant & underrated Cardiac Arrest. Mental health is of course regularly portrayed in film as well; unfortunately not always kindly or accurately. This report from Time To Change talks about how the depictions of mental illness is often cruel & blind to the damage the negative stereotypes cause. But there’s been some notable exceptions – I personally thought that the ‘Bedlam’ series last year was sensitive & very well done. But opinions are shaped by all of the portrayals we see, & from my point of view one of the aims of Medfest is to talk this, & how it affects how we feel about mental health problems.

The theme to last years Medfest was ‘Medicine from cradle to grave.’ The event I went to in Bristol was delightful – Havi Carel, the philosopher & writer, was there as a panellist & it was a privilege to hear her speak. The films were wonderful. My two favourites were ‘To This Day‘, an animated poem about the effects of bullying, & ‘Irene‘, a funny & heart breaking, & terrifically well made documentary about a woman who has dementia.

The theme for 2015 is going to be Global Mental Health. This has long been a huge interest of mine, ever since I was at university – in fact my dissertation for my degree (in International Health) was about the mental health of asylum seekers in London – so I’m thrilled it’ll be central to the festival. Mental health problems account for a massive proportion of the suffering from disease throughout the world – here is a piece from last year in the Lancet, discussing the Global Burden of Disease study & showing mental health problems, including addictions, are an increasing part of this. This is why I was so pleased to see the work of #FundaMentalSDG, a campaign to include specific mental health targets in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

So we would love to start some wonderful discussion about this at the film evenings. How does culture, economy, the environment, religion & spirituality, affect how people conceptualise mental health? What are the similarities & differences? How can communities & health services begin to help those traumatised by poverty & war? How can interventions to help those with mental health problems be useful in very low income settings? What do we do well? What do we do badly? And what can we learn from how other cultures think about, & deal with, with mental distress?

I so hope so much that the questions will be worth asking & that people enjoy the events.

We have almost all medical schools signed up now so if anyone is interested there should be an event near you next spring. Events are free & open to absolutely everyone – the more the merrier! So come along & you will be very welcome.

some links and reading

Here‘s a piece in the BMJ by Desmond O’Niell, about the Medfest event he went to last year in Dublin. ‘On the power of cinema in discussing medical humanities.’

Falling from their pedestal – doctors on film.’ A 2011 Lancet piece of the depiction of medicine on screen.

‘Minds On Film.’ this is a blog on the Royal College of Psychiatrists website, run by Dr Joyce Almeida. It is a wonderful collection of film reviews, with thoughtful & wise comments about how mental illness is portrayed – well worth a nosey through. I’m so pleased to say that Dr Almeida has agreed to be a panellist at one of the Medfest events – it will be huge pleasure to hear her take on the films.

Here’s a great TED talk by Vikram Patel, ‘Mental health for all by involving all’ – about mental health interventions in low income countries

‘Mental Health: Culture, Language & Power’ – Piece by Jane Gilbert about how the concepts of mental health can’t be separated from the ‘cultural & social fabric in which each person lives’

Here’s a paper, one of four, that Jocalyn Clark wrote recently – ‘Had the global health agenda become too medicalised?’ – on the dangers of thinking we have all the answers, & trying to push our own ideas & medical model where, in fact, it may not be culturally appropriate & may do more harm than good. Here is her paper specifically looking at mental health.

medflix blog – short reviews of a varied collection of medically related films

‘Eight films medical students should see.’

‘Reality and realism in medicine as portrayed in the cinema.’ A short editorial from 2007

‘Films with global health relevence.’ – fits well with this years theme! Piece from the Global Health webpage of the University of Pennsylvania.

Global mental health & its discontents.‘ – a great paper in Somatosphere (this magazine is always a repository of fascination!) by Dourte Bemme & Nicole D’souza, on the ethics, politics & anthropology of the global mental health agenda.



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