October 12, 2012

Ming Ho, Deputy Chair of the Writers GuildMental health: does TV perpetuate negative stereotypes? That was the question posed by Time to Change at an event for television drama professionals held on 1 October at the Hospital Club in London.

The evening began with a new training film presented by broadcaster Alistair Stewart, which aims to promote good practice in the onscreen portrayal of mental illness, and includes interviews with writers and directors involved in high-profile soap stories such as the bipolar disorder of Jean and Stacey Slater in EastEnders and the breakdown of Dr Ruth Winters in Casualty.

Kate Rowland, BBC Creative Director of New Writing, then chaired a panel discussion with writers Danny Brocklehurst (Exile; Accused), Dana Fainaru (Casualty), and Bill Lyons (Emmerdale), and mental health nurse, Lol Butterfield, who had advised on Emmerdale’s Zak Dingle storyline.

Research into a three-month sample of TV drama, led by the Glasgow Media Group, revealed that 74 programmes contained storylines on mental health issues – and these featured 33 instances of violence toward others and 53 examples of self-harm. While almost half were deemed to be sympathetic portrayals, the characters tended to be shown as tragic victims; and 63% of references to mental health were thought to be "pejorative, flippant, or unsympathetic".

How can writers and producers redress this disproportionate image of a link between mental illness and violence and dispel the fear that it engenders?

Danny Brocklehurst ruefully admitted that a violent incident was the catalyst for his acclaimed episode of Accused, in which a bereaved teenager develops psychosis, believing that his new stepmother has murdered his mother. However, he pointed out that the format of the programme, like much of TV drama, requires a crime at the heart of each story, and he had initially wanted to explore the dynamics and complexities of a step family; the character’s mental condition had arisen from the natural development of that story – he had not set out to write an “issue drama”. He very much feels a responsibility to get it right and will research to check authenticity, but for him the story has to come first.

Dana Fainaru, on the other hand, is keen on extensive background research. When commissioned to write the episode of Casualty in which Dr Ruth Winters is admitted to a mental health unit, she went to the Nottingham NHS Trust on which the BBC had based its documentary series, Sectioned, and talked to recovering patients.

it would have given too negative a conclusion and possibly have discouraged people from seeking treatment

Was there anything she had wanted to include in her episode, but couldn’t, Kate asked? Dana said the original storyline had culminated with the deaths of a patient and nurse in a fire, inspired by an incident recounted to her, but she had decided not to use this, as it would have given too negative a conclusion and possibly have discouraged people from seeking treatment.

She also spoke about her own experience of post-natal depression, a subject she explores in a new original project. Motherhood, she felt, “has become a brand”, and it’s hard to accept that some women can’t love their babies; there’s a correlation between high expectations of new mothers and their ability to cope.

Bill Lyons... criticised the current trend for melodramatic storylines

Bill Lyons, a veteran of popular series from Z Cars to EastEnders and now Emmerdale, criticised the current trend for melodramatic storylines that put characters through a rollercoaster of extreme incident with no lasting effect. He wanted to acknowledge the truth of such situations by allowing Zak Dingle to experience the natural progression to breakdown: “What we have put this character through is more than anyone can take.”

There was some anxiety within the production that it might damage Zak’s popularity; but Bill felt it was his very down-to-earth appeal (“he would have thought mental illness was just an excuse to get off work!”) that made Zak exactly the character to communicate this journey in a way that viewers would understand.

A questioner from the floor wondered if you could use mental illness as an ongoing factor, rather than a story driver

A questioner from the floor wondered if you could use mental illness as an ongoing factor, rather than a story driver – wouldn’t that be progress, for it to remain in the background? Danny queried how that would work in practice, when viewers have learned to expect that nothing is introduced without a reason or pay-off. Lol remarked that if soap accurately reflected statistics, a quarter of characters would have some kind of mental health issue, and the panel felt it was just not practical to approach drama from a demographic point of view.

All agreed that popular television requires a balancing act between entertainment, information, and veracity, and that talking to those with direct experience of issues is the best preparation. Media volunteers from Time to Change were accordingly available to share their personal stories on the night.

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About the author: Ming Ho is a writer and script editor in television drama, I have written for popular series such as EastEnders, Casualty, and Heartbeat. I am currently Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild, and am working on my first novel.

As my mother has had mixed Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia for many years, I am interested in raising awareness and understanding of the condition and its impact on those who live with it – in particular the challenges of paranoia, delusion, and confabulation, which may not widely be appreciated, even by professionals in the field.

The article was first published on writersguild.org.uk

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