Featuring characters with mental health problems in soaps and dramas can have a positive impact on people recognising illness or seeking help.
However getting it wrong may have a really negative effect and can reinforce stereotypes of ‘mad, bad and dangerous’
The public appetite for television soap opera means that this format has a huge potential for reaching large – particularly young- audiences. Find out more about our:
- research into into portrayals of mental health in tv drama and soaps
- top tips to make it interesting
- media guidelines (PDF)
Or – read case studies from soaps who have already produced great storylines, in the Media Issue of our Speak Out Magazine.
In 2014, Time to Change worked with Glasgow Media Group to review three months of TV drama, in order to identify themes in the way that mental health problems were being portrayed. Time to Change also surveyed the public about the impact that mental health storylines had on them, and sought insights from big names in the industry. On November 11th 2014, Time to Change produced the report 'Making a Drama Out of a Crisis', which found:
- encouraging signs that mental health depictions had become more positive. More storylines had attempted to ‘normalise’ mental health problems and fewer characters with mental health problems were portrayed as violent.
- the growth of a relatively new type of narrative, focusing on the damaging stigma a character with a mental health problem faces.
- the existence of some alternative stereotypes and over-simplifications, for example, about tragic victims and medication.
- over half of the survey's respondents who recalled seeing a character with mental health problems on TV said that this had helped to improve their understanding of such problems.
- among all those respondents who had personally experienced a mental health problem, a quarter said that seeing a character with similar issues encouraged them to seek professional help.
Read the full report here.
Creating a character or a storyline around mental health doesn't have to be either dull or explosive.
With one in four of us experiencing mental health problems it is a fact of life for many viewers and getting it wrong risks annoying or alienating much of your audience. It can be challenging but it can also be dramatic and interesting, without having to resort to stereotypes such as 'the mad axeman'.
- to make a character plausible and accurate, speak to as many people who have mental health problems as possible. They are the best consultants available and most want to see accuracy on screen
- listen to people's stories and experiences. Some scriptwriters have written entire storylines about mental health problems based on one conversation
- think about your camera shots. Certain mental health conditions can lead people to feel isolated or to experience altered reality. This can be reflected through close up shots, POV shots or hand held
- give the storyline enough time to develop. It is common that symptoms of mental health problems will manifest over a period of time and build in intensity, rather than develop and explode in the space of one episode
- think about how other characters react? Stigma and discrimination can be as bad as the mental health problem itself for many people. Can you show any empathy from others?
- get expert advice from mental health charities and experts to ensure that the symptoms you are showing on screen are relevant and realistic
- think of your dramatic climax carefully. Most people with mental health problems are not violent so it is unrealistic for a storyline to always end in violence or homicide
- don't use a mental illness just to try and explain bad or strange behaviour.
Now watch how the writers and directors behind hospital drama Casualty tackled a long running mental health storyline.