April 17, 2009

Easter Monday's episode of Coronation Street saw a throwaway remark by the character 'Peter Barlow' spark some anger with viewers when he referred to matriarch 'Blanche Hunt' as being dressed as a "mental patient" when she'd unwittingly turned up a few weeks early for a murder mystery weekend dressed as Amelia Earhart.

Whilst it certainly was a far cry from the popular cultural image of "mental patients" seen as shuffling around in faded dressing gowns and slippers, answering to the call "Meds", it still highlights how the use of such language around the subject of mental health subtly re-enforces stigma and discrimination, and we really do have a right to be indignant when we encounter it.

With audiences of over 30 million on some occasions these 'soaps' are mainstream TV, and they are reaching a family audience. Writers have a moral duty to accurately represent the difficulties encountered by the people who are their target audience, and that includes those with a diagnosis of Mental Health.

The current portrayal of 'bi-polar disorder' on BBC's Eastenders almost makes me ashamed to have this diagnosis, and I wonder whether I should write to the production team and say; "gis a job, I really can do that - better!" With all due respect to the actress, Gillian Wright, tasked with the job of playing 'Jean Slater', I really can be left alone with a duvet on the sofa without the risk of setting it alight, I've yet to wander the streets in a dressing gown and prostrate myself in front of moving traffic, I can offer to cook my daughter a meal without her asking if I've taken my "meds today", nor Jean, do I giggle mindlessly unless, of course, I'm watching Eastenders!

Okay, so the use of "mental patient" wasn't directed at someone with a diagnosis, and was an analogy, but many people who have encountered Mental Health difficulties have been subjected to such language. 'Psycho, Mental, Nutter, Headcase' are all 'insults' which I have had hurled at me over time, and they do hurt. Sadly I know that I am not alone. People are hearing this language used in every day conversation, reading it in newspapers, and then hearing it on TV, and with 1 in 4 people being affected by mental health difficulties at some time within their life it can mean that they feel too ashamed or scared to seek the help they need. How can early intervention schemes work if the people who need them are too frightened about how their friends and family will react to them if they reveal their difficulties?

Would the Eastenders actor Rudolph Walker, who plays 'Patrick Trueman', be happy if we saw a remake of the 70's sitcom "Love Thy Neighbour" appear on primetime T.V? I know I wouldn't, racist slurs are truly unfunny, as well as thankfully now 'illegal'!!

I really hope that in the future we can all be praising popular TV for its positive, accurate and appropriate representation of Mental Wealth!

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