Dan Parton(28/5/12) pops into Albert Square to look at Eastenders' portrayal of depression:
While I am not a big fan of EastEnders (my wife watches it, I take a passing interest - honest) the recent storyline involving Ian Beale has caught my attention, with its realistic portrayal of his depression and subsequent breakdown.
It culminated in last Friday night's episode, which closed with Beale walking by the side of a motorway in his pyjamas after having suffered a breakdown - triggered by his fiancée leaving him on the morning of his wedding.
This is a pretty one-off dramatic device, but it was just the culmination of several weeks' worth of stressful events for Beale.For those who don't watch, here is a brief overview: his businesses were in debt, his fiancée and daughter were fighting constantly;and he discovered that his half-brother, Ben, had killed another character - a secret he was struggling to keep.
Over the past few weeks, Beale's behaviour had become increasingly erratic, although those around him had failed to spot the signs that he was becoming ill. Thus far, the storyline has, to my mind, shown a pretty realistic depiction of what a breakdown can be like. Even if some of the triggers for the character's stress are untypical, his erratic behaviour, panicking and final disengagement from what is going on around him, are not. Adam Woodyatt, who plays the character, should be commended for his portrayal.
It's also significant that it has happened to Ian Beale: he is the longest-serving character in the show, so viewers know him and know that he doesn't have a history of mental ill health. His character is also a successful businessman, highlighting the fact that mental health problems can affect anyone at any time. That the story rings true should not be surprising: EastEnders'scriptwriters have worked closely with anti-stigma campaign Time to Change on the storyline.
EastEnders also has form in this area. In 2009, the soap gained plaudits for the storyline involving Stacey Branning's development of bipolar disorder. The actress who played the character, Lacey Turner, won several awards for her portrayal. In addition, Jean Slater - mother of Stacey - has been a regular fixture in EastEnders for more than 5 years. She also has bipolar disorder,and viewers have watched as her condition has fluctuated.
This storyline keeps up EastEnders' fine track record in addressing mental health issues and tackling the stigma that surrounds them. While soaps are often dismissed as little more than televisual fluff, designed as half-an-hour's escapism, a few nights a week, this again shows how they can be a powerful way to highlight issues and, in this case, tackle stigma with a mass audience. During the Stacey Branning storyline, MHF The Bipolar Organisation said the number of young people calling its helpline doubled in 6 months. The Ian Beale storyline may have a similar effect for people experiencing depression.
It will be interesting to see how the storyline plays out;hopefully it will include treatment and, in time, Beale's return to health, which would further help to break down the stigma associated with mental health problems, by showing that people can,and do, recover from them.