TV drama and soaps are cleaning up their act when depicting mental health

Mental health depictions in TV soaps and drama are becoming more authentic and prompt people to seek support according to our new report ‘Making a drama out of a crisis’ launched today.

The report comes as TV’s longest running soap takes on a mental health storyline, with Coronation Street’s Steve McDonald being diagnosed with depression later this month.

As part of the report we worked with the Glasgow Media Group who monitored TV drama series over a three month period from big budget box sets to home-grown soaps. They found that mental health is being covered more frequently compared to a previous study in 2010 with storylines in soaps such as EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Home and Away through to dramas including My Mad Fat Diary, Orange Is the New Black and Homeland.

In addition, the report found that more storylines have attempted to depict mental health problems more accurately and fewer characters with a mental illness are portrayed as violent.

The researchers observed the growth of a relatively new type of narrative, focusing on the damaging stigma a character with a mental health problem faces and the harmful effects of exclusion. However, they also found that there are still some overly simplistic portrayals and misinformation about medication.  

The report also includes new findings about the impact that mental health storylines have on wider public debate revealing encouraging results, including:

  • Over half (54 per cent) of people say that seeing a well-known character on screen has improved their understanding of mental health problems.
  • 48 per cent said it helped to change their opinion about the kind of people who can develop these problems.
  • 31 per cent said it actively inspired them to start a conversation about the storyline with friends, family or colleagues.

Coronation Street Producer, Stuart Blackburn speaks about why they decided to take on a storyline around depression:

"A particular challenge we faced with Steve and his depression is the audience's fear that the Steve they loved is gone for good. What viewers love about him primarily is the comedy - he's affable, hapless Steve, the bloke next door. But I've told the writers his DNA hasn't changed. His head might be taking a battering at the moment, but he still has the same wit, still has good days and bad days. And you can't rush the story.

“We've got to find a way to tell the truth about this, warts and all, AND entertain the audience. You hope a show like Corrie can genuinely make a difference to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, who'll be watching with different eyes or thinking 'Maybe I should go to the doctor' - but we won't get through to them if they're turning off."

British comedy The Thick of It satirises the inner workings of modern British government. Rebecca Front, the actress who plays the character Nicola Murray says:

“As an actress, if the character has any kind of health problem – mental or physical – you have to research it thoroughly. It’s incredibly important to get it right, and a bit insulting to people who have that condition if you don’t. I think there are more open discussions in life as well as in drama about the widespread nature of mental health issues, and the fact that you can be a fully functioning member of society while still dealing with a problem yourself.”

Stephanie Waring who plays Cindy Cunningham in Hollyoaks said:

“When I was told that Cindy was to find herself battling mental health problems I was excited to take on the challenge of such an important role as raising awareness is very important to me and something I feel very connected to personally.  

“I suffered from post-natal depression, which is not what affected Cindy, but it is a mental health problem and so I do have experience of how frightening and isolating it can feel when there is something very wrong and you want to feel better but you just don’t know how to.

“My character is at first diagnosed with bipolar but suffers further problems. Mental health can be difficult to diagnose and hard to recover from, which is why support is so essential and why we have to stop the stigma surrounding mental health problems, because being able to talk about it is the first step. 

“Someone close to me suffers from bi-polar and they along with health professionals helped me to research the role. It was so important to me to do it justice. Cindy has a long way to go on her journey but I know it is important to the producers that Cindy does recover and find a way to live a full and happy life because we need the message to be a positive one.”

The report is being announced days before the Mind Media Awards (17 November), which celebrate the best examples of reporting and portrayal of mental health in print, broadcast and digital media. A diverse shortlist in the Drama category this year sees E4 comedy drama My Mad Fat Diary compete against period drama Call the Midwife, children’s programme The Dumping Ground and medical drama Casualty.    

BAFTA winning screenwriter and Mind Media Awards judge Peter Moffat said:

“Drama can make a huge difference in the struggle to get people thinking about mental health properly and without prejudice. It doesn’t need to be polemical or campaigning, it only needs to be truthful. Homeland has set the standard for complex and honest writing about mental health and we all need to follow its lead.”

Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change says:

“The media have the ability to shape and form public opinion so it’s important that some of the country’s best loved soaps and drama series are taking on mental health storylines, doing them accurately, not fuelling stigma and helping improve understanding. The Media Advisory Service we offer at Time to Change has already worked on over 50 television and radio scripts including EastEnders, Holby City and more recently Coronation Street. We encourage all writers to make use of this service. Through their work, writers have the ability to break down stigma and discrimination through exploring issues and bringing them right into the nation’s living rooms.”

You can view the full report by clicking on the links below.  

 

 

 

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