Christmas is rarely a time of good cheer in Albert Square, but Lee Carter has been suffering more than most these past months thanks to his spiralling depression. And with the pressure mounting over this not-so-festive season, Lee looks set to hit crisis point.
“His depression is going to escalate,” says actor Danny-Boy Hatchard, “and it’s a hard-hitting thing for people to watch. I’ve had people writing to me saying that the storyline has been unbearable because it’s like watching themselves. But it means we’re doing our jobs properly.”
“Over Christmas, it will come to a head,” reveals Shona McGarty, who plays Lee’s wife Whitney. “I feel very sorry for Lee. He’s trapped by this belief that men shouldn’t show their emotions too much. So one of the problems is that Whitney is oblivious to it. She doesn’t know what’s going on in his mind.”
For Hatchard, the danger of young men staying silent about depression is a theme he was keen to explore. Suicide remains the biggest cause of death of men under the age of 45 in the UK and yet a stigma still surrounds mental health. Why do men in particular still find it so hard to speak out?
“Men, generally speaking, don’t like to express themselves because they feel it’s a sign of weakness. And it’s not. We want parents to tell their sons that they’re allowed to cry.”
For EastEnders, this is also a chance to return the soap to its social-realist roots with a slow-burn plotline that fans have been able to experience in sometimes agonising detail.
“EastEnders should have a message at the heart of it. It needs to affect people,” continues Hatchard. “The normality of it is important. If we keep heightening things too much, then it loses focus. But we’re making Lee’s story as real as possible. He and Whitney have been priced out of life. That’s why you saw him wearing his work suit on his wedding day. He can’t afford another one. There was a time when someone could fund a family on a normal, average salary. But now we live in a time where you can’t. Life is a lot more difficult.”
Adds McGarty: “Whitney has never had her own place before. She wants to make the perfect home, so she’s focused on that and is often oblivious to the secrets Lee is keeping from her. But Lee is burdened by the fact that he has a mum and dad who have a perfect relationship. How can he live up to that?”
The BBC1 soap has hopes that Lee’s plight will resonate with viewers, so what advice would Hatchard give to someone who recognises Lee’s symptoms in themselves?
“From the research I’ve done, I now know that everyone suffers differently with depression. It can affect your appetite, your sleep, what you eat, how you drive, your work ethic. What’s common is that feeling of impending doom – the sense that things are spiralling out of control to the extent that you feel nobody cares.
“But I’d say that there’s always someone that cares. I care. If I was to see someone in that position, I’d would give them a massive hug and try to help them in the best way I can. So if I exist, then there are millions of other people out there who want to listen as well.
“Talk about it. It takes a lot of weight off your shoulders. And that’s the first step towards recovery. I don’t feel anyone can fully recover from mental illness, but it’s important to sustain a balance and I think people can live a happy life.”
You can watch a 60-second rundown of New Year on EastEnders below.
And visit our dedicated EastEnders page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers.