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John Doyle: How television treats mental disorders, the good and bad

Sometimes it seems that television is obsessed with afflictions, and the more lurid and eye-popping the better.

Tomorrow and Thursday, TLC is offering hours and hours of My 600-lb Life. On Wednesday it's James K.'s story and it is three hours long: "James becomes bedridden, unable to stand and can barely move his legs; Holly and Mark prepare for skin-removal surgery." I'm not sure who Holly and Mark might be, but on Thursday, James K.'s story continues for another two hours: "James needs to find a way to get from Kentucky to Texas, then shed enough pounds to qualify for weight-loss surgery." The programs are offered "with insider facts," according to TLC.

There was a time when TLC was actually called The Learning Channel but these days it has only a nodding acquaintance with learning. Some of its reality shows are solid entertainment, but many amount to lurid exhibitions that smack of the freak show. In a society obsessed with thinness, the obese are presented not as cautionary tales but as beasts to be gazed at in horror.

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Often the TV treatment of medical issues defies belief. There is, of course, a long history of fictional dramas built around saving lives or treating exotic afflictions. They thrive. Grey's Anatomy has been going since before the Internet existed. Or so it seems. And most of these shows would lead the gullible to believe that what goes on inside a hospital is a group of attractive people engaged simultaneously in saving lives and falling into torrid love affairs. Matters medical tend to take a backseat.

Mental afflictions tend to be treated luridly, too. There are so many myths being ill-used, and inaccuracy abounds. This brings us to an exception, a plain-spoken, straightforward program airing this week.

ADHD: Not Just for Kids (Thursday, CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things) explains calmly that some adults who often seem endlessly distracted or who procrastinate a lot are actually suffering from what is commonly associated with children – attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Apparently there is a portion of the brain that deals with how we respond to stimulation and rewards. Thus, there is logic to what we do and we instinctively do things in a logical manner. We focus and concentrate. But for some brains there is a shortage of neurotransmitters and, it turns out, people we think of as daredevils or those in high-risk occupations are not simply high-energy risk-takers and show-offs but are people intuitively dealing with ADHD.

There is a link between smoking and ADHD, we're told. People with ADHD are much more likely to smoke because nicotine reduces ADHD symptoms and some people who continue to smoke are self-medicating.

There is a wealth of information such as that nugget about smoking in the program. One assertion is that while we typically think of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as something that is exhibited by young boys, the disorder also affects girls. It's just that it is much less obvious. One expert says that a classic case of late-adolescent failure, that of the 19-year-old woman who goes away to university and struggles and then drops out, is often a matter of ADHD symptoms being exhibited. He also says that psychiatrists often fail to ask the correct questions of patients who fit into that category of young women who seem lost and unfocussed when starting third-level education.

Considerable attention is paid to Samy Inayeh, an award-winning cinematographer who is mentally sturdy and calm when handling stressful job circumstances but struggles to be organized and attentive at home. He baffled himself and others for years until he was diagnosed.

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A lot of things suddenly make sense if you watch the program. In the general population about 5 per cent of people present the symptoms of ADHD. Among male federal prison inmates in Canada, it is 16-17 per cent of the population there. Perhaps the most significant nugget of information is the blunt dismissal of the myth that ADHD is something that adults outgrow. And there is an important assertion that some adults with ADHD – those who take creative risks – are actually a vital part of society.

Sometimes when television attempts to grapple with medical or mental disorders, it's all about exaggeration, in order to get the viewer's attention. Every visual element turns into a stunt. That isn't true of this, one of the most illuminating and sobering examinations of what afflicts those around us to come along in ages.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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