Depictions of mental health issues in TV soaps and dramas are becoming more authentic and prompting people to seek support for their own problems, a new report has found.
‘Making a drama out of a crisis’, by Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, which worked with the Glasgow Media Group, found that mental health is being covered more frequently than it was when a previous study was conducted in 2010.
The research monitored TV drama series over a 3-month period from big budget box sets to home-grown soaps, and noted storylines in soaps such as Coronation Street, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Home and Away through to dramas including My Mad Fat Diary, Orange is the New Black and Homeland.
Evidence from the report showed half of references to how mental health issues are portrayed in television dramas in 2014 were positive, compared to 41% in 2010. In addition, it found that more storylines have attempted to depict mental health problems more accurately and fewer characters with a mental illness are portrayed as violent.
Researchers observed the growth of a relatively new type of narrative, focusing on the damaging stigma a character with a mental health problem faces and the harmful effects of exclusion. However, they also found that there are still some overly simplistic portrayals and misinformation about medication.
In addition, the report found encouraging results in regard to the impact that mental health storylines have on wider public debate, including:
• 54% of people say that seeing a well-known character on screen has improved their understanding of mental health problems
• 48% said it helped to change their opinion about the kind of people who can develop these problems
• 31% said it actively inspired them to start a conversation about the storyline with friends, family or colleagues.
'Tell the truth - warts and all'
One of the biggest storylines in Coronation Street currently is Steve McDonald coming to terms with being diagnosed with depression. Coronation Street producer, Stuart Blackburn, explained why they decided to take on a storyline around depression: "A particular challenge we faced with Steve and his depression is the audience's fear that the Steve they loved is gone for good. What viewers love about him primarily is the comedy – he's affable, hapless Steve, the bloke next door. But I've told the writers his DNA hasn't changed. His head might be taking a battering at the moment, but he still has the same wit, still has good days and bad days. And you can't rush the story.
“We've got to find a way to tell the truth about this, warts and all, AND entertain the audience. You hope a show like Corrie can genuinely make a difference to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, who'll be watching with different eyes or thinking 'Maybe I should go to the doctor' - but we won't get through to them if they're turning off."
BAFTA winning screenwriter Peter Moffat added: “Drama can make a huge difference in the struggle to get people thinking about mental health properly and without prejudice. It doesn’t need to be polemical or campaigning, it only needs to be truthful. Homeland has set the standard for complex and honest writing about mental health and we all need to follow its lead.”
Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, added: “The media have the ability to shape and form public opinion so it’s important that some of the country’s best-loved soaps and drama series are taking on mental health storylines, doing them accurately, not fuelling stigma and helping improve understanding.
“The media advisory service we offer at Time to Change has already worked on over 50 television and radio scripts including EastEnders, Holby City and more recently Coronation Street. We encourage all writers to make use of this service. Through their work, writers have the ability to breakdown stigma and discrimination through exploring issues and bringing them right into the nation’s living rooms.”