Louis Theroux is back with Mothers on the Edge, a new BBC2 documentary about postpartum psychosis. Here, he answers all our questions about what we can expect…
When it comes to our viewing habits, there’s one genre of TV show that we return to again and again: the humble documentary.
Whether we’re diving into the murky world of true crime or having a heart-in-the-mouth moment over the plight of baby penguins in the Antarctica, we simply can’t get enough of watching shows about real life.
And there’s one man in particular whose shows we always return to on a regular basis: Louis Theroux. Over the years, we’ve joined the British filmmaker in exploring every topic under the sun, from anorexia and UFOs, to opioids and dementia. Theroux’s shows always make for compelling viewing, and his quiet determination to find answers to his (and our) questions mean no stone is ever left unturned.
So it’s a bit of an understatement to say that Stylist is thrilled to be able to exclusively announce the details of his newest documentary, set to air on BBC2 this May.
Called Mothers on the Edge, the new film will focus on the topic of postpartum mental health, and follow Theroux as he immerses himself in two specialist psychiatric units that treat mums who are experiencing a range of serious conditions, from depression and anxiety to psychosis. Theroux will meet these new mums, and their families, and follow their stories and journeys as they are treated in hospital and recover at home.
The powerful new show promises to offer an eye-opening look at a topic that is simply not talked about enough. Here in the UK, it is thought that around one in five new mums will suffer from a mental health issue before their child’s first birthday, many for the first time in their life. Yet despite this incredibly high number, we rarely hear terms such as ‘postpartum psychosis’ used in our everyday lives, meaning women are left to battle against a hugely damaging stigma and lack of understanding around what is happening in their own minds. Hopefully, that’s about to change.
Here, Stylist speaks to Theroux to find out more about the upcoming show, and discover what it was really like creating a film about such a sensitive and life-changing issue.
Why did you choose to focus on mental health and motherhood as a topic?
That’s a good question. I’m always looking for stories that combine deeply stark human emotions with complicated decisions, and these often exist in the world of mental illness.
Someone on my team bought postpartum psychosis to my attention, and if I’m entirely honest, I don’t think I knew much about it. I’d heard of postnatal depression before, but this was a new one for me. It affects about one in every 500 new mums, and symptoms include visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as profoundly irrational and disordered thoughts. It seemed to me to be a story we could do justice to.
I thought it would be powerful to explore the idea of what is supposed to be this magical and amazing time of creating a new life, and those first weeks and months of caring for that new person, when it’s all overlaid with deeply distressing mental illness. It seemed to me both very sad but also potentially life affirming, in the sense that we’d hope to share the reality of the condition to create more awareness of it and follow people as they recover from it.
There’s a balance between the dark and the light here, which is something that I’m always trying to maintain.
Why is now a good time to talk more openly about postpartum psychosis?
A lot of people aren’t aware of the condition, particularly men, and over the last few years there’s been a gradual sense that mental illness in general should not be a stigmatised condition. We need to do more to let people know there is nothing shameful or embarrassing about mental illness – it’s an illness like any other, even though it might not be as visible. And we can give families from the wider world a bit more of an understanding of what people with postpartum psychosis and postnatal illness go through.
In the film, you spend a lot of time immersed in two specialist psychiatric units that support mothers with mental illness. What was that like?
I always feel a bit embarrassed about putting it this way, but I enjoy my work, so I actually enjoyed being on the units. I found them to be very human, warm places, although I also recognised that the people there are going through sometimes horrendous episodes of mental illness.
There have been cuts in funding across the board in the NHS, but these units are one area where authorities have maybe had a sense that they need funding. This means you’re in a place where vulnerable people are being well taken care of and they’re exactly where they should be to get professional help, and they’re being supported to the point where they can go back in the world more equipped and in a better frame of mind.
Plus, the units also have babies who are not mentally ill. So as much as the mums might be struggling, which is obviously a sad situation to be in, there are babies there as well. Very often you might see a mum with symptoms of active psychosis, which we actually have in one scene in the film, cradling a baby. And there’s one part of me thinking, ‘wow, is that safe?’, but of course it is, because they are being supervised. And even though a woman with psychosis might harm herself, it is extremely rare for her to harm her baby.
There’s something wonderful and warm about seeing all the babies. I have three children, and my youngest is four, so it’s not long ago that he was a baby, and it bought back a lot of happy memories for me.
During filming of the documentary, was there anything that shocked you?
I don’t know if shocked is the right word, but making a documentary that involves serious mental illness means you’re aware of what a big responsibility you have, and how vulnerable your contributors are. In the film, one of our contributors had recently made a suicide attempt when we started filming her, and during filming she absconded from the hospital and made a second suicide attempt. So in terms of the level of stress and concern that we went through making the film, it was a massive worry when one of our contributors looked like she was going to do something to seriously harm herself.
What reaction are you hoping to get from the film?
I hope people tune in and watch it. I hope they enjoy it – I know that sounds a bit strange, but my documentaries are not supposed to be campaigning or moralising stories. In other words, I hope people are engaged by it, and that viewers appreciate how complex the set of emotions that go with new motherhood, and also fatherhood, are for many people.
I’d like people to take on board that there are forms of mental illness that, in many ways, aren’t massively different from the complicated feelings that new parents have, such as struggling with having a baby, struggling with your own responses, feeling guilt when you feel they’re not the right responses, or having anxiety about not feeling enough love. It’s not easily explained, and even the psychiatrists and patients themselves struggle to put into words what it is they’re feeling and why.
For me, it comes down to the idea that there is no shame in feeling what you feel. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re complicated and our emotions are complicated, and doing the best for your kids might sometimes mean you need a little support. And sometimes you might have weird thoughts, but it doesn’t make you a bad person – it might just mean you need a little bit of help.
I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding around the subject. One of the things we tried to get our heads around while making the film, was that even though we hear about mums who get intrusive thoughts of harming their babies, it that doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to do it. Sometimes the mind plays tricks on you or torments itself. It’s just part of a bigger picture of mums grappling with a mindset that’s not doing exactly what it’s supposed to, and throwing up ghoulish examples to itself.
It’s just one example of how you’re presented with people who are describing very deeply felt angst, and it’s a big trust they place in you because it could be misconstrued. And actually what these mums really do want, more than anything, is to do the best for their children and their families.
Mothers on the Edge will air on BBC2 in May 2019.
Images: BBC/Richard Ansett, Getty