Mental Health Awards: Aisling Bea’s This Way Up brilliantly captures life post breakdown

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From anxiety to postnatal depression, Stylist’s Mental Health Awards is spotlighting a year of TV shows that portrayed mental health issues in the most accurate and compassionate way.     

Warning: this article contains spoilers for Channel 4’s This Way Up

A comic drama about someone recovering from what they describe as a “teeny little nervous breakdown” isn’t an easy thing to pull off but the brilliant Aisling Bea does it with aplomb in the brilliant This Way Up. The series written by and starring Bea came out in July 2019 and is astutely observed, full of both warmth and darkness and, crucially, properly funny. 

It’s quietly revolutionary in that it’s not a show not about someone falling apart – and of course, it’s important to see that too – rather it’s about someone trying to put their life back together. It’s about getting stuck into the hard graft of recovery and finding hope.

As Bea herself said on her Instagram recently: “It IS a comedy which inadvertently ended up having “mental health” as a theme even though really about being alive & trying to get on with things, but it’s supposed to try to make you feel better & hopeful. 

Bea plays Aine, an English as a foreign language teacher, and we meet her as she’s checking out a rehab facility with her sister Shona [the always excellent Sharon Horgan]. “I have some practical feedbacks, just as regard snacks,” she says before leaving. “I was thinking minibars. One day when I was really low I would have happily paid double the recommended retail price to eat a KitKat without everyone gawping at me. Ideally in a fucking jacuzzi.”

Her sister Shona tracks Aine’s phone to make sure she’s safe when she goes out for walks at night as she’s so worried about her. What happened to Aine is never explicitly outlined; it doesn’t need to be. “Last year she…we think she tried to…But I got her in somewhere for a couple of weeks” says Shona. It’s unsaid, but that makes it more powerful. We know what she means.

Loneliness and human connection is at the heart of This Way Up. Something which feels particularly prescient right here and now, when we’re all isolated in our own worlds, often yearning for something to cling onto. It deftly captures what it feels like to be living in a city surrounded by people, yet feeling desperately alone. There’s an aborted attempt as Aine tries to have sex with fellow outpatient Tom in a bid to feel something. A sweet relationship with Étienne, one of her young students, and a potential flirtation with Richard (The Crown star Tobias Menzies), the man Étienne has recently learnt is his dad. One thing is clear though, it’s not just Aine that feels lonely: it pervades everyone’s life.  

Sharon Horgan and Aisling Bea on the set of This Way Up

One of the most skilful things Bea does is in beautifully balancing humour and pathos, it’s so important to see because life is made of light and shade. And we are made up of so many parts of ourselves.  “I do want to get better. Live. It’s hard man. It’s hard.” she says to a therapist. “The dailiness of it can be sort of relentless. All we can do is give it a go. Hey, do you want to hear a joke, it’s an old one: How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? One but the lightbulb has to really want to change.”

Bea has experience of living with someone struggling with their mental health. She wrote in The Guardian in 2017: “My father died when I was three years old and my sister was three months. For years, we thought he had died of some sort of back injury – a story that we had never really investigated because we were just too busy with the Spice Girls and which one we were (I was a Geri/Mel B mix FYI). Then, on the 10th anniversary of his death, my mother sat us down and explained the concept of suicide.”

The show has rightly had critical and audience acclaim as well as the stamp of approval from comedic peers like Catastrophe star Rob Delaney. 

This is smart, funny and relatable TV that doesn’t try and put people in boxes. It shows that misery and humour aren’t mutually exclusive and ultimately that human connection can bring us together.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helpline

Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch.

Watch This Way Up on All 4 

Images: Channel 4, Instagram 

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