A photograph of Stacey Dooley

How Stacey Dooley found a new way to talk about mental health

After spending months on a psychiatric ward researching her latest book, Are You Really OK? Stacey Dooley explains why she's determined to tackle the stigma around mental health.

Sarah Carson

Stacey Dooley had reservations about writing her second book. After spending months at Springfield Hospital in London for her 2020 BBC Three film On the Psych Ward, and its follow-up that aired last year, she “hadn’t anticipated the enormity of the [mental health] crisis.” There were conversations, she says, that needed more space than you get in “an hour-long documentary”.

But mental health is a broad, and not always straightforward subject to approach, especially when it comes to writing about people at their most vulnerable. “How do we do this ethically? How do we do it responsibly?” Dooley wonders. “It's very difficult, but you don't not do something just because it's difficult. You just have to be sure there's a duty of care, and you’re on your A game.”

Are You Really OK? Couldn't be more timely: as Dooley points out, we are more candid about mental health than we have ever been. But still, there is stigma, an absence of knowledge and deep discrepancies over who receives support. Dooley’s book, which follows On the Frontline with the Women Who Fight Back (2018), combines testimony from patients with insight from mental health professionals and experts alongside Dooley’s own experiences. It explores issues such as anxiety and depression, eating disorders, psychosis, OCD, gambling addiction, and postnatal illness.

'I am a million miles away from being this kind of hive of knowledge. But if you only care about things that directly affect you, I don't know how great that is'

“There are certain conditions that we're more familiar with and used to hearing about, but we perhaps speak less about psychosis and schizophrenia. I really wanted to make sure that that was prioritised in the same way,” she says. Throughout the book, there is a sense of Dooley’s empathy with the people she meets.

“I remember meeting this lad on the ward, he was a builder and a lot like the men I grew up with, and he said to me, ‘Stacey, I'm just spent, I'm done, I can't cope, I'm all out of sorts. I feel like I’ve let my family down, and I feel a bit daft being here’. I remember thinking ‘God, if we could just get people to see how ordinary people come here.’”

I ask her which of the contributors had the greatest influence on her: she says a successful young midwife who suffered from postpartum psychosis felt especially relatable. “You would wrongly assume that she might be exempt from having to deal with something like postpartum psychosis.” She had a stable life, a partner, her own home. “We are raised to think you do all these grown-up things but you can still find yourself in the thick of it,” she says.

Dooley is quietly and carefully spoken, and warm without being too pally. She is wearing baggy clothes and trainers under a floor-length fur coat the same soft red as her hair. We are looking out of the huge windows of her publisher’s office at the formidable US Embassy next door, wondering how many armed guards have their eyes on us. Dooley has made her name as an “outsider looking in”. She has experienced anxiety and panic, but says “I am a million miles away from being this kind of hive of knowledge [on mental illness]. But if you only care about things that directly affect you, I don't know how great that is.” She was careful to make sure that the book’s scope didn’t just reflect the spectrum of mental health conditions, but of Britain itself too: it features chapters exploring how racism, poverty, anti LGBTQ+ abuse and discrimination all intersect with mental health issues. 

“I wanted to make sure that everybody within our diverse society felt represented. I am not a gay man. I am not non-binary, I am not a Black woman. So I have no idea how taxing the things like sort of insidious racism must be day to day. And we do know that there can be ramifications when there are prejudices, or people treat you in a different way. I wanted to make sure that they were given a platform.”

Writing does not come easily to Dooley. “It isn't a talent that I have,” she laughs. “I love telling stories, but I still at 35 don't know the difference between a full stop and a comma!

“Some people find it so cathartic, and such a pleasurable experience. I'm not there yet! It feels so daunting. I'm not a massive bookworm, I can't say I sit down at the weekends and hoover up book after book.” Research for Are You Really OK? involved “a lot of Zooms”, she says. The first steps were getting in touch with a recognised charity associated with each particular topic, “just to make sure the language I'm using isn't going to be triggering. They're very generous with their advice, and then I would ask if they have got any people that would feel comfy [to talk to] going forward.” They built long relationships with the people they spoke to, and kept in touch. “When you're talking about something as sensitive and as delicate as mental health, you want to make sure that they feel fairly represented. So you show them their contribution. “Does this sound like you? Is it factually accurate? Does this feel like we've captured the essence of what you were saying?”

Dooley is approachable, easy to open up to and unintrusive: it is what has endeared her to contributors and audiences when making documentaries about subjects as broad as sex trafficking, suicide bombers and garment factories, which she has been doing since she appeared on BBC Three’s Blood, Sweat and T Shirts in 2008. She has restraint, leads her investigations by curiosity rather than politics or opinions or aggressive agendas of her own and speaks frankly and without superiority, in her soft Luton accent. It’s the same in the book, which, I tell her, feels like it’s written in her spoken voice. That’s something she hears a lot.

“I really take that as a compliment,” she says. “There is a temptation to talk in a very sort of sterile, sanitised scientific way when it comes to mental health. I wanted [the book] to be informal and conversational.” It means it feels accessible to read – no off-putting academic jargon – but also encourages the crucial message, she says, “that everybody is allowed to contribute to this conversation. We're trying to get to a point where it doesn't feel like there is this stigma.”

This is something Dooley is serious about in all her work – finding a way to digest important information in a way that doesn’t feel highbrow or exclusive. “It doesn't matter where you're schooled or how you consume information. I feel like that with the docs, too. I don't listen to Radio 4 religiously, but I speak to people that are in the thick of it, and nobody knows more than them.”

“Five or 10 years ago, I probably placed such importance on external validation. I think I do think it's changed. I'm 35 in March, I started at 20. We’ve evolved.”

She’s assured, talking about this now, but it hasn’t always been that way. “My God, when I came through, everyone was a bit like what on earth is going on? Who on earth is this girl that they plucked out of Luton? People were really confused and really felt like my contribution wasn't justified or important.” It took a long time for her stop feeling like she needed to prove herself as a serious documentarian against the posher, Oxbridge-educated figures who dominated television, at least when she first started. “I'm less arsed about that now,” she says. “Five or 10 years ago, I probably placed such importance on external validation.” Now, valuable documentaries are fronted by a far more diverse range of talents and she, as a working-class woman, no longer feels like an outlier. “I think I do think it's changed. I'm 35 in March, I started at 20. We’ve evolved.”

There is no quick fix to Britain’s mental health crisis, which has only worsened during the pandemic. Spending time on the psych wards gave Dooley a glimpse at the reality for those working there. “The NHS is overstretched and overrun and there is a huge funding issue and I completely recognise that I'm dipping my toe in it - for the people who work there, it's often fucking sad. This isn’t lip service: [what they do] is so admirable, and it's so selfless because it is relentless in my eyes.”

Instead of trying to tackle those huge-scale structural issues, with this book, her hope is “to just try and chip away at this stigma. People wrongly sometimes feel embarrassed, and then they feel judged. And when you feel judged, gosh, you're not going to talk to anyone, you just want to sort of sit and hide away.”

She wants people suffering – and their families – to know that recovery is possible. “It’s not always linear but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.” And for those who haven’t suffered directly, she wants more compassion toward people who are. “If you see someone who looks in a state of panic, or there’s a possibility that they’re not well, instead of rolling your eyes or swerving them or crossing the road, ask ‘Can I help you?’ Don’t make people feel odd or peculiar – it's a very basic human level of respecting people. I don’t think anybody [avoids people] out of spite or malice, but people are so terrified of saying the wrong thing, or getting something wrong, that we end up saying very little.”

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