While We Wait is a documentary production about the waiting list for mental health care in Norfolk, directed and produced by UEA graduate Alyssa Girvan. The film is currently screening as part of Essex Documentary Festival, meaning you can watch it online for free or donation.
I cannot express how necessary documentaries of this type are, both to be made and to be viewed. While We Wait is an honest and brutal dissection of the mental health services provided by the Norfolk & Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT). I have witnessed friends struggle and seek support for mental health in Norfolk, and have equally seen the shoddy response and waiting lists that follow.
But there is a big difference between a friend’s retelling and a stranger’s truth. My friends catch me up on the latest shambolic phone call or further three month wait, or limited session count that will supposedly be sufficient to ‘cure’ everything, as we sit in a pub drinking pints. We’re snuggled in a corner booth. Someone cracks a joke. We order another round. A pat on the shoulder. A kind, understanding look. Today has been a good day in their eyes, or they wouldn’t have come out.
Fast forward to Saturday, when I sat down to watch While We Wait, feeling entirely too prepared for the stories that were about to be told. The documentary begins with each person’s relationship to Norfolk – how long have they lived here, their favourite places, their childhood memories. Many of them talk wistfully of the beaches and countryside in all their wonderful nostalgia, and my mind is cast to these places I’ve grown so familiar with.
The documentary took me on a journey through the intense specifics of personal mental illness, ultimately demonstrating that no two people will suffer in exactly the same way. Two musicians taught me about the complexities in how we differentiate anxiety in its varying forms. A mother explained the incredible challenges of forcing doctors to separate her daughter’s autism from her struggling mental health. This chapter of the documentary was labelled “This is the reason why I’m sad.” It’s fair to say the speakers were not interested in wasting their testimonials by addressing this statement. It was insulting in its simplicity.
It’s important to note all the speakers were white and seemingly of British heritage. Norfolk’s and Suffolk’s demographic is majority white (well over 90%), however race and ethnicity are known to have a significant impact on mental health care received by patients. I don’t believe this discredits While We Wait in any way, but as a single body of work, it has its limits. The speakers’ stories are all ones we should hear and act upon, but there are many more stories that need to be told.
The most powerful moment in the documentary was so brief it could easily be missed. In the midst of describing how his anxiety grew over time, 20-year-old Bertie mentioned that “putting the dishwasher on became an impossible task.” I was hit with the physically debilitating consequence of his mental health. Many of the stories detailed the physical symptoms of eating disorders, but Bertie’s comment stuck with me. It was completely invisible and yet indisputably real. The treatment of mental illness has historically been met with resistance in part due to its supposed invisibility. While We Wait fully invests itself in manifesting this visibility for mental health. The recurring stories of waiting and being messed around by faceless voices in the system built up and up until I was overwhelmed with anger at the lack of acknowledgement these people had received for what seemed so blatantly obvious.
Another great strength of the documentary was its focus on the carers. Their stories were truly heart breaking and the love for their children was overwhelming. The immense power this documentary found in overlapping such different and painful experiences revealed deep crevices in the ‘support’ given by NSFT. While We Wait fails to give us any testimonials from mental health professionals, but to be frank, I don’t care. The flaws in the system are already known. It needs more funding to allow for more time to allow for more empathy. “They don’t know how to help what they don’t understand.” That’s just not good enough.
I’m still very new to this reviewing business, but I’m quickly learning a lesson: forget about trying to write notes. Once more I sit down optimistically with a notepad and pen, and once more, watching While We Wait, I fail to write a single word.
Because the stories this documentary tells are so gut wrenching, so terrifyingly close to home, that each second required my utmost attention. The film starts with rolling rural shots and a piano’s soothing tinkle, the voiceovers describing our Norfolk surroundings with the kind of gentle mocking that only comes from true affection: “I live in a tiny village…my only neighbours are fields and funeral homes.” In fact, if you didn’t know what you were watching, you could honestly mistake this opening for a pretty cheese tourism ad. That is, until the text begins appearing on the screen, the plain black background and white lettering a sobering contrast to the gentle shots of Norfolk fields and the bustling Norwich city centre. Norfolk mental health services are notoriously bad, and the facts that present themselves are once that I half knew already, but seeing them on screen in such an affronting way is still deeply shocking. I won’t repeat them all here, not because I don’t think they’re worth knowing, but because I’d implore you to watch the documentary for yourself.
The film moves on in the same format, cutting between shots of the interviewees telling their stories of using Norfolk mental health services, interspersed with the black and white text – this time pulling quotes from the words being spoken. Again, seeing each phrase written down for some reason packs an even greater punch with me; like the documentary as a whole, it feels so important to be capturing these people’s lived experiences, and documenting them so precisely.
Because the prevailing thing that reoccurs time and time again listening to the stories told is that listening, and documenting, is exactly what was failed to be done by the services that should have been doing so. The appallingly long waiting lists, the sense of being passed around from service to service, the inability to take effective action – whether through unwillingness or lack of funding (or most likely, a combination of both) – these are the threads which weave themselves through each of the horrendous stories told.
Yes, While We Wait doesn’t give a complete picture of mental health services. How could it? In a thirty minute documentary (done on an impressive kickstarter-funded budget) you’re never going to do so. Most of the interviewees are young and middle class, all of them are white. Norfolk is also notoriously non-diverse, but perhaps it would have been worthwhile seeking out voices from marginalised groups often even further isolated from mental health services. And with more time and money, it could have been interesting to hear from ‘the other side’: health service perhaps themselves frustrated with the clearly broken system they work within, or members of the local government, who must surely be aware of the horrendous failings occurring under their watch.
But on the other hand, perhaps what felt so powerful about While We Wait was that it didn’t try to do too much. It let the people being interviewed tell their stories – for some of them, maybe the first time – and even more importantly, it forced us to listen.
Everyone needs to see this film. Especially people in Norfolk. I am writing this review immediately after viewing While We Wait, and I’m speechless. Well, not speechless exactly – but I’m finding it very difficult to speak without profanities, shouting, tears, and angry keyboard smashing. While We Wait is a gut-wrenching and sobering mirror held up to examine Norfolk’s mental health services, common biases that those with mental illnesses face, and our community’s collective & fragile false sense of security that says ‘this doesn’t affect my life, so I don’t need to know about it’. For anyone who feels that way – this film will show you that you do need to know about it. That this does affect someone you know. That in fact, it will likely affect you personally at some point in your life.
This documentary has been made masterfully. Each interview was conveyed with the utmost sensitivity, clarity and integrity. The way the interviews are shot and scored grounds the piece in reality and urgency, without any need for sensationalism or drama; a challenging balance to strike, but utterly necessary for the piece’s weighty subject matter. While We Wait has outstanding cinematography and composition – particularly in the shots of Norfolk’s forests, green spaces and beaches.
It felt as if my organs were twisting inside me when seeing these beautiful shots of the idyllic countryside settings that Norfolk boasts as its own, framed against stories of Norfolk’s people being utterly failed by a system created to support them. Honestly, I felt sick to my core. While We Wait poses so many painful, vital questions – how can the ‘safest place in the country’ be potentially the most perilous for those with mental illnesses? And how, despite the Norfolk & Suffolk Foundation Trust being the first mental health service put under special measures, are we not seeing tangible and immediate, lifesaving changes?
Whilst watching, I could not shake the fact that these people are my peers. They are illustrative of people that I pass in Tesco, people that I went to school with, people that live down the road from me – the people I share my home county with. However, I couldn’t help but think of all of the people struggling with their mental health in Norfolk that may face even more barriers to receiving the help that they need – particularly Norfolk’s global majority, refugee and migrant residents. It is important that their stories are heard too, and my only criticism of this piece is that I wish that people from these communities were able to be featured.
The people presented in this film, telling their stories, are astoundingly brave. More importantly, they’re representative of a much larger percentage of Norfolk’s 900,000 residents who are equally brave, and equally failed by our county’s poor mental health system. This is a rallying cry for a complete reformation of mental health services as we know it. In doing this, we have the power to ensure that so many less people feel alone, and crucially, that so many more people survive. It’s time for us to write to our MPs, to protest, to make a statement with our votes. While We Wait is a call to arms; we must answer it.