Last night, some of us were tweeting about The Archers. Specifically, about the scumbag Rob Titchenor whose latest act of psychological warfare against his wife Helen was to hit her and then make her feel so bad that, by the end of the 13 minute programme, she had apologised for making him do it. He then delivered his coup de grace, that she was in need of psychiatric help.
As you can imagine, this generated much debate. Quite a few people said that it wasn’t Helen that needed a psychiatrist, it was Rob. They said he was sick. I believe they are wrong. And I want to explain why I think this.
Is Helen mentally ill? And if she is, could Rob have caused it?
Only someone who is clinically qualified can really answer this question. But as Helen is a fictional character and therefore unavailable for an assessment and formulation, we are entitled to make assumptions.
Helen has a tendency to depression, anxiety and problems such as anorexia in part because of her personality. She is someone who sets herself high standards and drives herself very hard. She has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. She judges herself harshly and punishes herself for her own perceived failings. And she reacts badly to criticism from others.
She has some additional risk factors. She is, or rather was, a single mother. She has experienced several major losses: her older brother died in a farming accident when she was a teenager. Her last partner died by suicide. Also, her father was recently very ill. Her younger brother went missing for a year and her best friend felt betrayed by her.
All of this makes her vulnerable. So Rob hasn’t exactly caused it. But he has exacerbated it. And now he is using it against her.
Isn’t Rob also sick in the head?
Rob is also fictional. We only know what the writers have shown us. But again, we can make assumptions.
He certainly shows narcissistic tendencies. He cares a great deal about his own feelings, but little for those of others. He views the world as there to serve him. He constantly reminds Helen that she is Mrs Titchenor now, and that she must dress and act to please him. Henry must be “obedient”. The coming baby is “my son”. The house revolves around Rob . He is jealous and actively excludes those Helen is close to.
He also has a nasty temper, is untrustworthy and lacks morals. He hit the hunt saboteur and later lied about it. He cheated on his first wife with Helen, and lied to them both. There are suggestions he may have lied when he worked with Charlie. And there has been at least one occasion where he either raped Helen or was rough enough during sex to cause her bruising round the neck. She seems uneasy near him.
But these are not signs of mental illness. They are the tendencies of all bullies, cheats and those who get through life by using others. Rob has chosen Helen because she is vulnerable, and has resources that he wants – she has her own house, and will inherit half of the family farm business. And she can give him a child.
What about his mother? Is she mentally ill?
Aah, Ursula. She is a manipulator. She probably learned to behave like this as a small child herself because her own family was dysfunctional. Her relationship with Rob is deeply dysfunctional too. She wants to please him, and will go to any lengths to do so. She perceives Henry’s unhappiness as bad behaviour. She thinks sending him away to boarding school will help him. Her interest in Helen’s pregnancy, labour and other intimate matters such as Henry wetting his bed is prurient. I wonder whether she is a sex abuser. She gives me the creeps.
Why can’t Pat and Tony see through Rob and Ursula and why can’t they see their own daughter is so unhappy?
Because they are nice people. And they are deeply invested in Helen having made the right choice. They feel bad about not warming to Rob at the beginning. The truth for them is too awful to contemplate…at the moment.
What will happen to Helen?
Who knows? Only the writers. Perhaps her love for Henry will override her feelings for Rob, and she will confide in someone like Tom or Kirsty and they will help her to escape. Or perhaps she will be assessed by a mental health professional who will ask all the usual questions about things that are troubling her, and leave her enough space to express the doubts about Rob that we can already see lie just below the surface. Or perhaps she will continue to be terrorised by him until something even more awful occurs. This is what happens in real life. And even if they get away, women who have been abused like this may suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives.
Why do I mind when people confuse mental illness with bad behaviour and say that people like Rob Titchenor are mentally ill?
Because badness is different from madness. You can have both. But they are not the same thing. And until people stop equating them, and the media stops using terms such as “paranoid schizophrenic” as a term of abuse, we have a very long way to go.
Of course we need to provide skilled intervention for those who abuse. They may have defects in their personalities (sometimes called narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathic personality disorder or sociopathic personality disorder) that cause them to lack empathy and feel compelled to hurt others. These terms are understandably helpful in forensic mental health services. But they should not be bandied about by the rest of us. Because this is skilled work. And also because, for people who have been diagnosed with a Borderline Personality Disorder, which has at long last been recognised as an extremely traumatic, treatable mental illness, being lumped together with people like Rob under the overall heading of personality disorders is distressing and adds to their stigma and alienation.
Time to Change is the national mental health anti-stigma campaign. Over the next five years, for which most of the funding is now secured, they will be tackling some of this harder, more intractable stuff with people who need more persuading. And people like me will be volunteering and writing stuff and speaking at events in support of their campaigns until we have achieved greater awareness, understanding and empathy for people like Helen.
The use of mental illness as an explanation for people who do abhorrent or otherwise inexplicable things is part of the stigma that those of us who experience mental illness face on a daily basis. Please try not to do it. Thank you.
PS: I’ve just noticed people on Twitter saying this storyline is affecting their mental health. Hmmm….It may trigger thoughts and feelings in those who have been abused and/or experience mental illness. But it won’t cause mental illness.
Anyway, people who don’t like it can always switch off. And watch Happy Valley maybe….