Warning: this article touches on subject matter that some readers may find distressing.
Why do we watch soaps? Largely for escapism, mainly for entertainment, but sometimes to understand the world a little better through the exploration of challenging subjects affecting the everyday lives of the audience.
Challenging subjects such as suicide, which is the biggest cause of death in men under 50 – a stark, sobering statistic from the Samaritans that inspired Hollyoaks to tackle the topic of male mental health, leading to the tragic moment this week where the character of Kyle Kelly (Adam Rickitt) took his own life.
The emotive storyline proves how effective a medium soaps can be for discussing difficult issues, and highlights the importance of real-life research necessary in order to realistically portray them.
Among the organisations Hollyoaks consulted for the suicide story was James’ Place, a Liverpool-based therapy centre supporting adult males in suicidal crisis. Viewers followed Kyle, and close friend Darren Osborne, as they both battled depression and struggled to articulate the need to get help.
“Both characters fit the criteria of who we are here to support,” says Jane Boland, therapist and centre manager at James’ Place. “They were struggling with social and psychological issues and needed someone to get them through their problems and understand how they got into that crisis.
“I think soaps are perfectly placed to raise awareness about things like this. They have huge audiences and reach a broad range of people. You might think Hollyoaks is aimed at younger viewers but often they’re watching it with grandparents or parents, all sitting down together at teatime.
“Soaps can model positive ways of managing difficult situations and conversations among the audience.”
Suicide prevention campaigner Angela Samata, who fronted BBC documentary Life After Suicide in 2015, also acted as a consultant to the soap’s editorial team, who she praises for their commitment to ensuring accuracy and sensitivity in the storytelling.
“I was heartened at how much input I had. It wasn’t just about me informing the actors and allowing them to dip into individual lived experience (Samata lost a partner to suicide 15 years ago), it went much deeper into working with scriptwriters and the wider team.”
“Hollyoaks really listened,” says Boland. “Ashley Taylor Dawson, who plays Darren, met with a guy called Chris who had used our service. They spent hours together and the slow burn approach they took to the story and how they built in small details was very good.
“Darren couldn’t understand why he was feeling like this. At one point he can’t motivate himself to put together a piece of furniture, that echoed Chris feeling like he was a terrible father and husband because he hadn’t fixed the decking in the garden for his kids to play on – but it wasn’t about the decking, something deeper is going on that pushes you into feeling you’re letting people down, that you’re worthless and everyone would be better off without you. That’s where you start the conversation.”
Hollyoaks have effectively told two parallel stories of differing reactions to coping with the creeping grip of depression – Darren eventually opened up about his spiralling mental health, just at the point where Kyle shut everyone out and took his own life.
Killing a popular, loved character off was a brave way of seeing the storyline through to an unflinching, uncomfortable end, shaking the audience by the shoulders to acknowledge something that might well be happening to someone in their own lives – maybe even to themselves.
“In reality there are some who reach out and receive the help and support they need,” says Samata. “Unfortunately there are those who, for a myriad of reasons, do not reach out, or they do and they don’t get the help that they need. Not everybody always gets everything they need, and Kyle’s experience reflects real life.”
The continuous format of soaps means no storyline is ever really finished. Kyle may be gone and mourned, but the story continues through fiancee Nancy Osborne dealing with her grief, as well as Darren and the next chapter of his journey to manage his mental health and dark thoughts. Similarly, raising awareness on a big issue is just the beginning for Samata’s ongoing campaigning.
“It’s not just about getting a specific moment right in the story, there’s also the aftermath and ensuring that once you encourage people to talk honestly and openly about something, the work continues.
“Let’s think about what happens next after you put this in people’s living rooms. We’ve encouraged the audience to be honest and open, so we’ve just done a campaign on being a good listener and letting people talk. One thing leads to another and you keep the engagement going.
“Through soaps you connect with so many different demographics, you see it on social media, where people reach out to organisations you’ve suggested. Soaps can provide an important, vital and life-saving platform for discussion.”
For help and support visit www.jamesplace.org.uk or contact the Samaritans free on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.