Malcolm is A Little Unwell
Prominent PBS Journalist Documents his Descent into Mental Illness
Editor’s Note: After a routine yellow fever vaccine required for an assignment in Africa, BBC (and later PBS) foreign correspondent Malcolm Brabant suddenly descended into madness—literally. Following a near-fatal fever, he spent months in and out of hospitals and psychiatric wards in countries throughout Europe, convinced he was either God or Satan, talking to the dead, and coming perilously close to harming himself and his family. All the while, he recorded some of his bizarre unraveling on camera—and now, this alarming journey into (and out of) severe mental illness has been turned into a fascinating new documentary, Malcolm is a Little Unwell. The Reporters Inc. engaged in a recent Q&A with Brabant to find out more.
For those who aren’t familiar with you and your work, please enlighten them.
I’ve been a journalist for 45 years and for two thirds of my career I’ve been a foreign correspondent. I had some glorious years with the BBC when I was based in Athens and Miami. I covered the Bosnia war from start to finish and was named British Radio Reporter of the Year in 1993 for my coverage of the siege of Sarajevo. Among the more notable stories I broke in Bosnia were about the Serb-run rape camps and the massacre in Srebrenica.
In the U.S., I covered the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential election, and I’m proud to say I was astute enough not to call it for George W. Bush, when many of the American networks did.
I’m currently living 35 miles west of London in a small town by the River Thames with my Danish wife Trine, who I met in Sarajevo during the war, and our 20-year-old son Lukas.
What is your current role with PBS NewsHour?
One of the best things to happen to me career-wise was in 2015 when I started working for PBS Newshour as a special correspondent covering European affairs. I had an intense time covering the European refugee crisis for a PBS Newshour series called Desperate Journey, which won a Peabody Award, America’s top broadcasting journalism prize. If that turns out to be the pinnacle of my career, then I can have no complaints.
I am effectively the Newshour’s Europe correspondent. I see my job as trying to put a human face on the geo-politics of Europe. Personally, I think I’ve got one of the best gigs in journalism. The past year was dominated by the turmoil in British politics and Brexit. But I covered a broad spectrum of European stories, such as the devastating fire at Notre Dame in Paris, the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings, President Trump’s failed attempt to buy Greenland, and the extraordinary story of Omar Al Shogre, a Swedish based refugee who survived Syria’s death camps.
What happened to your health, starting with your yellow fever inoculation? Why did you need this shot, and what transpired after it?
April 15, 2011 is branded into my memory. That’s the date I had the yellow fever shot at a clinic near my then home in Athens, Greece. I was obliged to have the vaccination for a freelance assignment on behalf of the UN children’s organization, UNICEF. I was due to travel to Ivory Coast in West Africa to shoot a series of films about child soldiers. Without the vaccine, I couldn’t travel.
Within 18 hours of having the shot, I was burning up. I developed a violent fever that was potentially fatal. It lasted for 13 days before the doctors managed to stop it.
A scene from Malcom is a Little Unwell.
Describe the psychotic episodes you experienced, and how people around you reacted to them.
My transition from normality to certifiable lunatic took place in a Greek hospital where a tropical diseases specialist was trying to cure my fever. Suddenly I had a clarity about my purpose on this earth.
I genuinely believed I was “The Chosen One.” Apparently, the Messiah complex is a fairly common form of psychosis. As an agnostic throughout my adult life, I have no idea why I concluded that I was the manifestation of the Second Coming.
I was on the 15th floor of the hospital and I was drawn to the cupola and cross of an Orthodox church about a mile away. I phoned my wife Trine and said, “Do you know, who I am? I’m Jesus. And I’m going to fly with angels now.” She immediately got in touch with the ward. Nurses rushed in and found me on the window sill praying. It was then that I was transferred to a secure psychiatric unit.
The chief psychiatrist assured my wife that the psychosis was an organic occurrence, triggered by the vaccine and that it would pass. But it didn’t for several weeks. During that time, I was convinced that I was in touch with my “Guardian Angels,” four journalist friends who died in tragic circumstances. I was deluded into believing that they were sending me tasks to prove to the world that I was the new Messiah. I failed miserably.
Malcom, deep in the throes of his mental illness.
It was one of the most frustrating experiences that Trine refused to accept my new persona. I believed that I could cure people. I thought I could stop the traffic at will. Of course, I couldn’t. But my normal journalistic skepticism deserted me. And I continued to believe that I was Christ, until the anti-psychotic drugs did their job and I returned to earth.
I was able to leave the psychiatric hospital and return home. However, I had several relapses and they became progressively worse. I had a very severe breakdown on July 1, 2011. I had become convinced that one of my friends, Danny McGrory, who had died from a brain hemorrhage, was going to be resurrected live on television.
My wife and I were talking about McGrory on our balcony in the darkness the night before, when suddenly a bright shooting star streaked across the sky in front of us. I was certain it was a sign from God. And that this was a repeat of the star that had guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem 2000 years ago. The next day I completely lost it and started delivering a crazed sermon from my balcony during which I stripped naked.
I also filmed myself doing it. And this is one of the key sequences of our documentary, Malcolm is a Little Unwell.
After this episode my wife sent me to England. She and our son needed a break from me. She also hoped that British doctors would cure me. I was locked up again temporarily, spending two weeks or so in another psychiatric secure ward.
I was sectioned by the British authorities, which meant that I was a danger to myself. Before being sectioned, I ran away from a clinic, because I was afraid of being locked up again. It was hardly an escape, but I was in a bizarre place. I spent the day roaming around a former WWII airfield, believing I was being guided by the spirits of dead pilots.
By the autumn of 2011, Trine had moved us to Denmark, her home country, in the hope that the excellent national health service could treat me. Within a couple of weeks of arriving in Copenhagen, I had suffered another major relapse. My madness had flipped. The euphoria of the Messiah complex was replaced by the profound belief I was the Devil. And that my bad deeds were going to lead to my family’s death. This was the bleakest part.
The depths of my illness were so severe I fell into a deep depression and started to have suicidal thoughts. For the next eight months, on and off, my home was Ward 811 in a secure unit of a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Copenhagen.
I was allowed home to our shabby apartment in a crime-ridden Danish project on Christmas Eve. It was the bleakest Christmas ever. My wife handed me a sharp knife to carve the traditional pork joint. And suddenly I heard voices in my head saying “kill, kill, kill.” I feared I couldn’t control my actions. I handed the knife back to Trine. After the most miserable festival meal, I asked to be taken back to hospital early. I didn’t dare tell her about the voices until several days later.
How long did this all last for, and how did you eventually overcome it?
In all, the process of recovery and relapse lasted for 15 months, and most of that time was spent in secure wards. The Danish psychiatrists eventually managed to cure me with a massive amount of medication, including Lithium. By the end, I was on more than the maximum recommended amount of medicine.
I eventually was released from the hospital in July 2012. And I haven’t been back. I was told I would be on medication for the rest of my life but I was determined to get back to normal. Gradually, I weaned myself off all the drugs by reducing the doses in small steps. By January 2014 I was drug free…and suddenly my brain felt like it was no longer subjected to a chemical cosh. I was given the complete all-clear. And I haven’t felt any psychotic twinges since.
Malcolm and his wife Trine, during his recovery.
How was your career and reputation affected? Weren’t you concerned about going so public with your illness?
The experience wrecked my career.
My relationship with the BBC was always difficult because over the years I had several spats with the management. I was also furious about what I perceived as the lack of pastoral care during the darkest period. What incensed me was that I had put my life on the line for the corporation on multiple occasions, especially in war zones such as Bosnia, and that my commitment out in the field was not reciprocated.
By the time I was drug free, I had written (the book version of) Malcolm is a Little Unwell,criticizing the BBC’s behavior. New managers in the news department were furious with the book and told me in no uncertain terms that I had no future at the corporation.
But I’ve always been an enterprising freelance journalist. And fortunately, I did some stories that attracted the attention of PBS NewsHour in 2015. Our relationship suddenly took off. They took a chance on me. And I grabbed that lifeline with both hands. I will forever be grateful for their support and generosity of spirit.
Yes, we as a family have taken a risk by going public about my illness. But we did so for multiple reasons. We felt there was something wrong with the vaccine, and believed we should be raising a warning flag. We also felt it might reduce the stigma of mental illness. But we only made the documentary after I won the Peabody Award because by then I had regained my professional reputation and so the risk would be less.
What prompted you and your wife to shoot footage of your situation at this time, that ultimately ended up in the documentary?
Initially Trine picked up her iPod and filmed me because she wanted to document the drastic dramatic mental changes that were taking place. I filmed myself during the extraordinary relapse on the balcony in Greece because I thought the Second Coming had to be on television. We didn’t set out with the intention of making a documentary. But when I was writing the book in 2012-13, I relied on the footage we had shot for accurate descriptions of what had happened. And we realized that we had the skeleton of a film.
What have you learned about the vaccine administered to you, and why you had this reaction? Was this an anomaly or has it happened to others? If so, to what extent? Does the general public need to be concerned for its own safety?
In scientific terms we haven’t learned anything at all about why I had this reaction. We believe the vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur has not conducted proper investigations into my case. Since we have gone public, more than a dozen people have contacted me to say they have had similar psychotic reactions. But almost all of them have been reluctant to reveal themselves publicly because of the stigma of mental illness.
The yellow fever vaccine has undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives. But last year in Britain, there were two vaccine-related deaths. The most prominent was of a 67-year-old cancer specialist. Current medical advice is that no one over 60 should receive the vaccine. And those with immune deficiencies should be wary. The British medical authorities have advised extreme caution before taking the vaccine. The best advice I could give is to consult your doctor and ask all the right questions before taking it.
What does the vaccine maker say about all of this?
This is part of the statement from Sanofi Pasteur to us:
“The administered vaccine dose came from a batch that had passed the numerous quality controls prior to release for use. A vaccine batch is only released once an official medicine control laboratory has verified the data provided by the manufacturer and has performed its own independent testing.
“The batch met all release specifications and none of the tests showed any signal of a quality issue. More than 120,000 doses of the batch had been distributed in several European countries, including Greece, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK with no reported illnesses similar to Mr. Brabant’s being reported.
“In addition, after carefully examining all the medical information that was disclosed to us up to April 2013, no evidence was found for a causal relationship between the administration of the yellow fever vaccine Stamaril and Mr. Brabant’s reported medical conditions. Follow-up was also conducted in 2015 with the same conclusion.
“Vaccines are easily suspected of causing adverse events without any firm evidence other than the fact that the event was observed following vaccination. However, time coincidence does not automatically mean that vaccination has caused this event, just that the event occurred after vaccination.”
Basically, I believe the company is saying their vaccine had nothing to do with my insanity. And that I went mad all by myself. That, in my view, is laughable. None of my doctors have ever been contacted by them.
What’s more significant are statements made by their Innovations Director Ronald Neeleman at a vaccine conference in 2013. We have him on video stating the following:
“Well, this is actually how we made yellow fever in the ‘60s. Nothing very much has changed. Of course, we’re not doing this on tables like this anymore. But the principle how we make yellow fever is still the same. This is a very small market, with very, very low margins, and just really not an incentive to completely redevelop this yellow fever vaccine. So, we’re basically stuck there with this production methods and this yellow fever which doesn’t really make us any money.”
And that poses the following questions:
* Don’t drug companies have a moral duty to people who rely on these vaccines in some of the poorest regions of the world, to apply the most up-to-date knowledge, and to ensure that they’re as safe as possible?
* Or could it be that drug companies tolerate collateral damage amongst some of the world’s poorest people, because, unlike me, they are not going to make a fuss?
What takeaways do you want viewers of Malcolm is a Little Unwell to have?
As I said earlier, we wanted to raise awareness about the potential dangers of the vaccine, and to reduce the stigma of mental illness. But it’s also a fascinating story. As journalists, we expect the subjects of our reports to expose their inner emotions at some of the darkest points in our lives. And here I was in perhaps the biggest story of my life. I had a duty to reciprocate.
But this film is also about the impact mental illness on close family members. Viewers see our son Lukas, losing the innocence of his childhood during the dramatic relapse in Athens. He was very badly damaged by what happened.
But it’s also a film about love, and redemption, and determination. We reached rock bottom and we hauled ourselves out of the abyss.
Malcolm, his wife Trine, and their son Lukas, prior to the 2011 vaccination that changed all of their lives forever.
How do you hope the film will affect change, in terms of laws and medical regulations?
The film has already triggered Parliamentary questions to the health department in Britain. And it was also studied, we think, by the British medicines regulatory body when they carried out an urgent investigation into the vaccine following the deaths last year. This vaccine has not been upgraded for more than half a century. And I think research needs to be done to ensure that no one else suffers the way I and some others have done.
How has this entire health crisis changed you overall, emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually etc.
After I came out of the hospital, I mainlined Danish pastries as comfort food. And I can’t shift the pounds, especially as I’m older. In some ways I’m stronger as a human being, because I know what I have overcome. But I’m not as cavalier as I used to be. Because the boundary between success and disaster is gossamer thin. Spiritually, I’m completely anti-religion. I’ve got no time for people’s imaginary friend. I can’t pray for the sick. But I send good karmic waves. I do believe in goodness and kindness.
Where has the film been shown so far, and what’s been the reception?
It went down well at the Cambridge Film Festival where it premiered. We got beaten to second place by a great Chinese documentary. But no other festival has dared show it. Most probably because of the vaccine issue. It’s just too controversial in a world where the anti-vaccine brigade is seen as the Anti-Christ. Our film is not anti-vaxx. It is nuanced and strikes a middle path, showing that the vaccine issue is not black and white and that there are many shades of grey. To that extent, we are backed up by Dr. Heidi Larsen, who is in charge of a world program to improve the take-up of vaccines.
Of the yellow fever vaccine, Dr. Larsen says, “We don’t need as much of it as we thought to give protection for life, which also means that maybe some people were getting too much of it and not at the right times. There really needs to be a much better understanding about how much and when this vaccine is given.”
Overall, the film has been well-received. Most people who’ve seen it say it’s a film they will never forget. Those with mental health issues have been extremely grateful that we’ve gone public.
How can we watch it now?
You can catch the film on all download sites including iTunes, Amazon Prime, Vimeo and Google Play. The book is available for Kindle/download on Amazon.
Do you consider yourself fully recovered at this point? Any lingering effects?
Absolutely. And no lingering effects. I am back to my usual obnoxious, difficult self. As Monty Python would say, he’s not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy.
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