Recently, the soap-opera EastEnders appeared in the headlines for all the right reasons. For an upcoming storyline involving a character with schizophrenia, the producers for EastEnders decided it would be beneficial to bring a lived experience advisor.
Antonio Ferreira, a volunteer with mental health charity, Mind has been invited onset to guide scenes and ensure that the portrayal of the character of Isaac Baptiste “wouldn’t be offensive or sensationalised”.
Ferreira spoke to BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat about why accurate representation is important, “because when I was young and feeling like that in terms of my mental health, I had nobody to look up to or relate to.” This echoes the perspective that has been made very clear over the past ten years, representation matters.
Getting representation right
Whether it’s increased representation of LGBTQ+ peoples in shows such as FX’s Pose, or the honest portrayal of someone recovering from the trauma of a sexual assault such as in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, these stories being told by or informed by people with lived experience will always land with more meaning and poignance.
A study published in CNS Drugs found that stigmatising representations of mental illness in the media can “impair self-esteem, help-seeking behaviours, medication adherence and overall recovery” and also noted that “the media may be an important ally in challenging public prejudices, initiating public debate, and projecting positive, human-interest stories about people who live with mental illness.”
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In 2018, Mind took part in a round table at the House of Commons with the cast of Hollyoaks to discuss a storyline on the show that had helped young people who were self-harming. As a result, Channel 4 signed the Time to Change Pledge, as a sign of their dedication to fighting mental health stigmatisation.
There has been much development in the portrayal of conditions such as depression, OCD, anxiety and bipolar disorder. However, as Mind has pointed out, “not all conditions are treated equally in the media.” And schizophrenia, personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder and dissociative disorders such as dissociative identity disorder (previously known as split/multiple personality disorder) are frequently portrayed as violent, dangerous and scary.
In an opinion poll by Mind, almost 60% of those who participated said schizophrenia is more negatively portrayed in media than any other mental health problems.
Going back to Mr Ferreira, his participation with EastEnders is particularly important as Black people, especially Black men are far more likely to be subjected to community treatment orders, and even more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act.
The government report, commonly referred to now as the Sewell Race Report, refuted the claim that this suggested presence of racism within mental health care, saying that this may be due to higher “instances of diagnosed schizophrenia among ethnic groups, particularly Black”.
This disproportionate and severe treatment towards Black men makes the appropriate and informed treatment of the character of Isaac even more important. Mr Ferreira hopes the storyline will help break down barriers for Black people and encourage “openness, empathy and understanding.” Mr Ferreira also said, “There’s not enough diversity in people sharing their stories. We should be giving a voice to these people, a chance and opportunity, because usually all you see is violent, threatening portrayals.”
Antonio Ferreira’s presence on EastEnders marks what should be the start of a standard present on all TV and film sets that involve or address stories around mental health. If we are to truly fight the stigmatisation that those with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia experience, we absolutely must include those who have lived experience in that fight.