Schizophrenia on Waterloo Road
Posted Wednesday 14 March 2012
Viewers of the BBC’s School drama Waterloo Road will this week see one of the characters diagnosed with schizophrenia – a storyline that we helped to develop.
This is just one of the TV shows that I am currently working with. As part of our Time to Change campaign with Rethink Mental Illness, I am working to make sure that storylines are realistic and that the characters dealing with mental health problems are being portrayed as accurately and sensitively as possible.
Storylines and scripts are written months before broadcast and it’s a long process where input can be sought every step of the way.
The first step generally involves an informal chat with a story researcher where we will throw around ideas about timescales, symptoms and discuss a possible climax. This allows them to build what is called a story arc.
In drama they often want situations to move very quickly or to have a tragic ending with the character written out of the show. I am constantly trying to make sure that stories do not always end in violence or that a character does not suddenly experience a mental health crisis without the viewer having seen some build up and possible triggers.
If a storyline is given the go-ahead by the writing team then I get in touch with our media volunteers. The volunteer will work with researchers and writers to give an emotional responses to the storyline. They draw on their personal experiences to offer guidance on how a character may react in certain situations. We try and find people who are as close to the fictional character as possible in terms of age, location and direct experience.
The media advisory service is currently supporting two of our most watched soaps: Eastenders and Emmerdale. One of our volunteers told me recently that he has begun to see the scripts that he has worked on appear during his evening viewing. And has heard many lines that he helped hone come out of this characters mouth.
With one in four of us experiencing mental health problems, soaps also risk annoying or alienating a great chunk of their audience if they write a character that is one-dimensional, unrealistic or simply a stereotype - the ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ mould.
Soaps and dramas have a huge potential for reaching large, particularly young, audiences. They are among the most watched television on our screens.
Featuring characters with mental health problems can have a positive impact - it can help us end mental health discrimination, help people recognise mental health problems and can also encourage people to seek help.
Of course it is all very top secret as no-one wants a soap ‘spoiler’ ruining their armchair viewing. I have had to sign a confidentiality agreement and can’t leave scripts lying around for prying eyes.
When watching with friends, I find it hard to stop myself blurting out future scenes. And I know that all our volunteers can’t wait for the day when they can tell people about the double life they have been leading, helping to get the message across through drama and soaps.
Jenni Regan, Senior Media Advisor, Time to Change
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