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Mental health in television soaps

by on 2016/01/08

We regularly blog about how mental health conditions are discussed and portrayed in the media. Examples include depression, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We also blog about related issues such as when mental health conditions arise in pregnancy and the post-partum period and use of psychiatric medication in pregnancy. Looking more broadly at how mental health conditions are represented in television programmes (and the media coverage of that), it is clear that there has been an increase in coverage of mental health conditions on television over the last few years. This is a good thing in general terms for raising awareness, addressing stigma and helping to normalise mental health conditions. However, the success of that depends on how programmes represent the mental health conditions concerned. Most importantly, are the producers and script writers ‘researching the headlines’ to move beyond popular misconceptions and find out a detailed accurate account of these conditions before they represent them in characters?

In recent years, a number of common mental health conditions have been dramatised in popular UK soap operas.  Coronation Street has featured depression with long-time serving character Steve McDonald (actor Simon Gregson) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with child character Max Turner (actor Harry McDermott). In the last few weeks, Eastenders has been portraying a case of postpartum psychosis with character Stacey Branning (actress Lacey Turner). Stacey is also a long-time serving cast member and is a character who was previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder some years back. Have these representations of common mental health conditions been accurate? Do they appear to have been researched?

In the case of Eastenders’ Stacey, it is evident that the answer to both of these questions is ‘yes’, based on the coverage that has been shown so far over the Christmas and New Year period. The script writers have drawn on a range of appropriate professional bodies to advise on the storyline and ensure the representation of postpartum psychosis is accurate. Mind and Bipolar UK have been working closely with the actors and producers from Eastenders to ensure that the story reflects real people’s experiences of postpartum psychosis. In an interview with the Radio Times, Mind’s head of media, Alison Kerry stated that “We are pleased EastEnders is tackling another important, often misunderstood, mental health problem. Although very rare, postpartum psychosis is an incredibly serious illness that can affect a woman with or without pre-existing mental health problems just after birth”. Clare Dolman, vice chair of Bipolar UK, commented in the same interview: “As the national charity supporting people with bipolar, we’ve been glad to work closely with the BBC on Stacey’s storyline.  There is a very high risk that women with bipolar will become ill when they have a child and 20-25% of them will have a postpartum psychosis, so it’s fantastic that EastEnders are raising awareness of this devastating condition”.

These mental health charities have been giving advice to Eastenders, including making sure that Stacey doesn’t show the symptoms one day and then they disappear as if by magic the next – a problem we frequently have seen in the past with the portrayal of mental health conditions in television programmes. This unfortunately was the case for child character Max Turner in Coronation Street who appeared to be developing completely typically one day and suddenly developed ADHD around the age of ten. A couple of years on from his diagnosis, the symptoms seem to have magically disappeared. ADHD is a developmental disorder that appears early in development (usually before the age of 6) and continues into older childhood and adolescence. Two thirds of children who are diagnosed with ADHD will continue to meet diagnostic criteria for the disorder as adults.   ‘Growing out’ of ADHD is a misconception. ADDISS, the UK national charity for ADHD, is a well established organisation that can provide advice and support about the condition.

More recently, Coronation Street’s portrayal of Steve McDonald’s depression has been much more accurate. Indeed the programme was shortlisted for a Mind Media Award 2015 for their representation of depression with Steve’s character.  Steve is shown to gradually become overwhelmed by feelings of depression and anxiety (which often co-occurs with depression)  and slowly shuts himself off from the world. He gradually isolates himself from family and friends, as well as his fiancée, and it takes some time for Steve to begin to show signs of recovery.

The Eastenders’ team in particular deserve praise for both the lengths they have gone to in seeking out advice from professional organisations, from mothers who have experienced postpartum psychosis, but also the small nuances built into the script which help address popular misconceptions. For example, throughout recent episodes, Stacey is repeatedly seen carrying her baby in a sling. Babywearing is a sign a parent is engaging in what are referred to as ‘attachment’ practices with their baby – using a sling promotes closeness and bonding with the baby. As can be gleaned from NHS advice, although some mothers have difficulty bonding with their baby after an episode of postpartum psychosis, this does not usually last long. They state that “with support from family, friends, and the mental health team, most women go on to have a very good relationship with their child”.  It is also clear that the Eastenders’ team have done their research with babywearing and haven’t just popped to Mothercare and slipped the first sling they have come across on Stacey. The sling used is an ergonomic design, which means it is best suited to the health and comfort of mother and baby. Stacey follows the T.I.C.K.S. guidelines in wearing the sling and indeed the team actually hired a sling consultant to ensure they adopted best practices here.

A final positive aspect to mention is that the mental health conditions have been represented in characters who are long serving and popular. Both Eastenders’ Stacey and Coronation Street’s Steve fit into this category. This helps normalise the conditions and reduce the stigma associated with them. A final note to mention is although it is excellent to see that mental health problems are being portrayed in a more accurate way, it is important to remember that people with the same mental health condition could experience different symptoms and have very different experiences. Treatments and coping strategies that work for one person may not work for another. Look at See me for useful information on ending mental health discrimination.




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