Mind: How soaps can set the bar for mental health stories on TV
A representative for Mind outlines the power of authentic and accurate portrayals of mental health on TV.
By Alex Bushill, head of media and PR at mental health charity Mind
At its best, the media entertains, educates, and influences. At its worst, it misinforms, distorts, and polarises. Nowhere is this truer than in how the media deals with mental health.
Attitudes to mental health, as reality TV producers like to say, have been on a journey. And what an amazing journey it’s been. The way we view mental health and how we talk about our own has transformed in just a decade. But just how much of that positive change has been reflected on our screens and on our airwaves?
When mental health is depicted, it’s so important that it’s done well. Authentically. Accurately.
New research we’ve carried out with ITV shows that one in four of us have realised we are experiencing a mental health problem ourselves after watching or listening to a mental health storyline on air, whether that’s in a long-running BBC soap or the latest Netflix drama. Whether you’ve been moved by Netflix’s coming-of-age drama Heartstopper or Channel 4’s Pure which deals with Marnie’s experience of OCD, soaps have real power.
So, for example, after episode 2 of Pure, where Marnie learns she has OCD, visits to Mind’s OCD information pages increased by a whopping 77 per cent. And it’s not just Mind who thinks there are more and more sensitive portrayals in the media - a recent poll we did on LinkedIn showed that more than 80 per cent of those who replied think the media has got better at depicting mental health.
It's no surprise that soaps are one of the most powerful ways to relay what living with a mental health problem is like. What other format allows us as viewers to follow a character’s story so intimately? With every episode, we invest in them more and will them to succeed. That’s why well-informed storylines raise awareness and challenge outdated attitudes and myths. They also give a unique insight into mental health problems and where you can get support. In short, soaps dedicate more time and space to tell a story that allows us – the audience – to relate to the character and root for them through all their inevitable trials and tribulations.
Giving this space is so important because symptoms can be more realistically depicted, developing over time. The character’s journey is more nuanced and authentic and there doesn’t have to be a rush to reach a crisis point. For our new media guidelines, we spoke to lots of people – with lived experiences of mental health problems – about the storylines which made the biggest impact on them. For example, which storylines encouraged them to start a conversation or seek information and support?
Among the soap storylines most praised were Darren’s depression storyline and Imran’s experience of an eating problem in Hollyoaks, and Stacey’s experience of bipolar disorder and post-partum psychosis in EastEnders. The episodes around Stacey’s experience of post-partum psychosis received national news coverage and sparked a much-needed conversation about a diagnosis that many people hadn’t heard of, as well as highlighting the support which can be offered to new mothers. For our supporters, these storylines make the most of how soaps can speak to their audience.
Right now, for example, Radio 4’s The Archers is portraying what it’s like to experience psychosis for the first time through the experiences of Ben Archer and his family as they support Ben with depression. These experiences resonate with so many more people than you might think. That’s why when mental health is depicted, it’s so important that it’s done well. Authentically. Accurately.
Last year, Mind advised on more than 30 different storylines. We put those with lived experience in touch with the actors playing them. We ran workshops. We advised on what a mental health problem really feels like from the point of view of those of us who manage them every day. Working together, we’re making a difference.
We worked with EastEnders on a storyline involving Isaac Baptiste (played by Stevie Basaula) and how the character experiences schizophrenia for the first time. This storyline was credited by others, including the charity Rethink, as being an important moment, depicting a more balanced portrayal of this much-misunderstood diagnosis. To do this, we provided research on symptoms, what support, medication or treatment is available, and with a million people on NHS waiting lists, the reality of how hard it is to access mental health services.
It's clear, though, that there is still a long way to go. There are still too many stigmatising and sensational depictions on screen. That’s everything from inaccurate stereotypes around violence or lazy and unhelpful labels like ‘psycho’, ‘schizo’, or ‘mad’ that litter so much character dialogue.
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For some of us, we can go a long time between periods of poor mental health, for others they can and do recover, and for some, it is enduring. Sharing positive experiences of recovery or the ways in which we are able to manage our mental health can prompt others to seek help for themselves. But how often is this shown in the fictional depictions we see or hear?
Instead, many of our supporters tell us they avoid watching TV because of how damaging previous mental health portrayals have been to them. Nearly nine out of 10 people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives.
When will every storyline stop always rushing towards an impending and apparently inevitable crisis?
And when will soaps or dramas start depicting someone with a diagnosis where their mental health is merely incidental? Many of us manage our mental health and lead fulfilling lives. I am one of them. When will we see ourselves on the telly? When will every storyline stop always rushing towards an impending and apparently inevitable crisis? Now, if fictional depictions can continue to normalise mental health, and help remove the stigma which persists, that would be both refreshing and a real sign of success.
That’s why Mind has just launched its first set of media guidelines to help writers, actors, and producers depict mental health in a more relatable way. We know the power of drama is in believing in the characters we see on screen. If the character is more rounded and nuanced, informed by the lived experiences of those it is portraying, then the drama too will be more compelling for it.
Download a copy of our guidelines: www.mind.org.uk/media-guidelines. Working on a commissioned script or documentary? Get in touch at email@example.com.
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