Why has BBC’s Bodyguard influenced the view of PTSD and male mental health?

I, like over 10 million other people in the UK, sat fixated whilst the final episode of BBC’s Bodyguard was playing. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised just how much the show, and especially the final episode, had influenced how male mental health, and specifically PTSD was viewed by the general public. This article will contain slight spoilers for anyone who hasn’t watched the show, and major spoilers if previous viewers haven’t yet found out about the lead character’s fate, but will be used as a guide to, in my opinion, influence one of the most important discussions mental health is currently, and unfortunately for a long, been facing.

Male mental health has been a huge issue for a long time, and it has until recently been something that was rarely discussed openly, with many people probably not even realising there was an issue. It’s only in recent years that it is now being increasingly spoken about in the media and everyday life. There is still a long way to go, but even just having the subject out in society allows it to get into people’s consciousness and enables them to realise that there is a problem and it does need to be addressed.

The current problem

This is a general statement, and not all males are the same, but overall the problem is that men deal with their feelings in a different way to how women do. While, generally, women may feel as though they can talk about their feelings, men aren’t adept at doing so, and instead express them in a different ways including:

  • Converting their feelings into something else, such as anger
  • Moving their feelings to somewhere else, such as expressing emotions at a sports event
  • Experience feelings through physical complaints, such as head or backaches.

Male mental health, as a whole, is something that needs to be discussed, but what Bodyguard did was put a spotlight specifically on PTSD.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

I’m sure many people will agree with me when I say this, but when I first became aware of PTSD, and for years afterwards, I thought it was only something war veterans suffered from. I think it’s important to stress that PTSD is something anyone can experience due to a range of situations, not just from experiencing military combat. PTSD can develop from any situation a person finds to be traumatic, including serious road accidents and violent assaults. It is estimated that around 1 in every 3 people who experience a traumatic event is affected by PTSD, and it is something that can develop immediately after the experience, or weeks or even years later. There are various symptoms of PTSD, which can be grouped into different categories, including:

  • Re-experiencing: a person involuntarily and vividly re-lives the traumatic event in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, repetitive and distressing images/sensations, and physical sensations such as sweating, nausea, pain or trembling.
  • Avoidance and emotional numbing: a person actively tries to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event they experienced, and they do this by avoiding certain people or places, or avoid talking about what happened. People may also try and distract themselves by focusing on their work or hobbies. Some people may also try to not feel anything, which could lead the person becoming withdrawn and isolated.
  • Hyperarousal: Some people may feel very anxious and find it difficult to relax, and be constantly aware of threats and be easily startled. These states can lead to someone being irritable, having angry outbursts, experiencing sleeping problems, and have difficulty concentrating.
  • Other symptoms include various mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or phobias; self-harm or destructive behaviour; and physical symptoms such as chest pains, dizziness, headaches, and stomach aches.

PTSD is something that can be treated, however. It can even be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event has occurred, so it is never too late to seek help. The main treatments are psychological therapies and medication. The NHS website states that for someone experiencing PTSD, confronting their feelings and seeking professional help is often the only of it effectively being treated. I think this is why it is so important for a show like Bodyguard to portray what they did in the final episode.

A television show’s influence

Bodyguard was a six-part BBC1 Sunday night drama that quickly became the biggest new drama on British television in over a decade. It focused on Sgt David Budd who became the Principal Protection Officer of the Home Security. The viewers quickly became aware that he was an ex-army soldier who had been suffering from PTSD, which was the reason why he was separated from his wife; she couldn’t live with how it had changed him and wanted him to seek help, but he dismissed it. The first 20 minutes of episode 1 cemented the audience’s intrigue into the show, and into David, but if we take away the drama, the twists, the turns, and the brilliant final episode, I think we are left with one clear message – talking helps. This is because in the last few minutes of the finale, we see David go to a room named ‘Occupational Health’ where he introduces himself and says that he needs some help. This small, 44-second scene was poignant enough to lead PTSD charities to praise the show because it highlighted a very important issue that men don’t talk about mental health. This scene showed that it can be as simple as walking into an office to start the conversation, and to start the process of being able to heal.

So why was this show in particular a very influential platform? Firstly, the main character David, played superbly by Richard Madden, is recognisable to many due to his work on Game of Thrones. I have only watched a few episodes of the show but recognised him straight away. Richard has been in many other things, but for anyone who hasn’t seen Games of Thrones, it is one of the biggest television shows in the world. Secondly, the BBC programme had a huge audience, and therefore enabled so many people to see what this person was going through, and hopefully understand what the message was saying at the end. Thirdly, it was a water-cooler show; it seemed like everyone was talking about it, and that can only be a good thing. It kept the show in people’s consciousness and ultimately David’s story was too. Finally, David was an incredible character – the writing and acting, I thought, was of the highest quality. He was extremely likeable and had just enough diverse characteristics to pull in a huge range of emotions from all the different types of viewers who were watching. He was endearing, from the very first scene you were on his side, and he had a strong personality but a fractious past. Therefore he was a character you rooted for and you wanted to see him happy in the end, but he was also the strong, wounded hero that all types of people would be intrigued by. This allowed for the scene where he sought help for his PTSD to resonate with lots of different types of people; some who may have wrongly thought that talking about your feelings doesn’t help. If the programme has turned just one person’s opinion around, then it has done a brilliant job.

When beginning to watch Bodyguard, I didn’t think it would be so influential towards male mental health. When I heard that David was suffering from PTSD I just thought that it would be a character trait and wouldn’t be a plot point. Sometimes programmes only touch upon topics and then get bogged down by another part of the plot rather than focusing their energies on character traits that would not necessarily be explored. But that was the point – the PTSD part of the David’s character makeup didn’t need to be explored because we saw various symptoms of it over the six episodes, such as hyperarousal, avoidance, and depression. The programme didn’t need to pin-point this, the viewers are intelligent enough to pick up what they needed to themselves. For me, one of the final scenes where he sought help was the scene that really counted. We had invested so much in the storyline and the character of David, that when he spoke to the Occupational Health Psychologist, it influenced our opinion; talking about PTSD and male mental health is what needs to happen in order to deal with it, and I thank Bodyguard and the BBC so much for allowing this to be shown.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach