The Stacey Branning storyline in EastEnders has put the spotlight on postpartum psychosis, but are portrayals such as this helpful in fighting stigma, asks Carol Bogg.
We Brits enjoy our soaps. As millions of us avidly follow gritty storylines, we love to peer into the lives of others in a way that we are normally unable to do in real life.
Historically, producers have tackled some big issues, often congratulating themselves on raising awareness and reducing stigma. I would ask though, is accuracy sacrificed in the name of drama and ratings? When does it stop being informative and become detrimental?
Consider the current EastEnders' Stacey Branning storyline, whose character has a diagnosis of bipolar. The Christmas plot saw Stacey giving birth on Christmas Eve. As the programme makers tackle the impact on her mental wellbeing, viewers see Stacey struggling in the grips of postpartum psychosis.
How realistic is this portrayal and how does it influence the viewer?
Although postpartum psychosis is not typical, it is more prevalent in new mothers with a history of bipolar. In recent episodes, we have seen Stacey come off her meds and descend rapidly into mania, experiencing a range of frightening symptoms. In one episode, viewers saw Stacey perched perilously close to the edge of a roof. Powerful scenes evoking strong emotions.
The likes of NHS England, mental health organisations and the press have previously praised the positive influence of the depiction of mental health in soaps. However, some professionals are criticising what they call a characterisation of mental health; concerned that sensationalising such storylines can result in increased stigma.
Is such criticism founded?
Certainly viewers praised the interpretation by actress Lacey Turner, suggesting her performance was worthy of an award nomination. These accolades suggest that the general public found the portrayal to be credible and demonstrating empathy. Others were less sympathetic, if Twitter was anything to go by.
Clearly there are mixed views. Some viewers declared the storyline to be sensationalised and unrealistic. Others, who had experienced postpartum psychosis, found it to be measured. With this in mind, do soaps further our understanding of mental health? Given that postpartum psychosis is rare, affecting an estimated 0.1% of women in the general population, it does not have the reach of more common conditions such as depression. It is known that up to 25% of women who experience bipolar will also experience postpartum psychosis following childbirth, while it is estimated that 1.1% of the population experience bipolar compared to 25% experiencing depressive disorder. An issue that affects the minority then.
In my view, the producers have wasted an opportunity to get an important message across about mental health generally. They highlight one of the rarer conditions, and, in a grab for ratings, show the extremes.
Over the Christmas episodes, EastEnders attracted between 7.3 and 8.3 million viewers. We do not know how many of the estimated 0.1% of people living in the UK with a bipolar diagnosis are soap fans.
Poor mental health is insidious with far-reaching consequences for millions in the UK. Every opportunity taken to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health should be applauded. I would be interested to know readers’ views on whether they think the EastEnders producers have achieved this.
It remains to be seen how the programme deals with this storyline as it unfolds and whether there will be a happy ending for Stacey and her baby. For women (and their families) who have experienced this serious mental health condition, I am sure the portrayal will resonate with them on some level and they will be pleased that the issue is being tackled.
For others, and for mental health generally, the jury is out on whether the general public feel educated and reassured that they would firstly recognise mental health in themselves or others, and secondly, know what to do about it without being scared witless. How much more useful it would have been to show viewers that mental health is not to be feared and can be overcome with robust support.
The show’s producers hail the storyline as one of the biggest of the New Year, exploring the impact of Stacey’s bipolar on both her and those closest to her. Over coming episodes, as we see Stacey’s story unfold, I can only hope the support Stacey receives reflects services in the real world.
About the author
Carol Bogg is a health and wellbeing coach at Phoenix Coaching Solutions. Email – firstname.lastname@example.org