for better mental health

Improving representations of mental health on TV

Friday, 19 January 2018 Jenni Regan

Our senior media advisor Jenni writes about representations of mental health in TV dramas.

Jenni is the Senior Media Advisor at Mind working with the media to encourage realistic, accurate and sensitive portrayals of mental health.

There was a time when you could tell which character in a soap or TV drama was the one with a mental health problem. They’d usually be the strange outsider who’d appear in an episode, hurt or kill a much loved character and end up being dragged away to be locked up in a mental institution for life.

Thankfully things have moved on hugely in the past two decades or so. This is my seventh year running the media advice service at Mind and even in that time I’ve noticed a real shift in the way the media approach mental health.

This is reflected in many ways. Our Mind Media Awards last year were the biggest and best ever, with Prince Harry attending and presenting an award. Every two years we do research around newspaper coverage of mental health topics. Our last piece showed that for the first time, stories were more positive than stigmatising.

"Our last piece of research showed that for the first time, stories were more positive than stigmatising."

Recently (and this is my personal favourite) we took part in a round table at the House of Commons with the cast of Hollyoaks, talking about how a recent storyline on the show has helped young people who are self harming. Westminster and Hollyoaks are not something you would usually put together but it was great to see the soap world and politicians coming together to discuss mental health. Channel 4 have just signed the Time to Change pledge as a signal of their commitment to mental health both on and off screen.    

Unfortunately, not all conditions are treated equally in the media. Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are starting to be treated with sympathy and understanding on screen. However, when schizophrenia and personality disorders are covered it’s usually in connection to violence, even though we know that you’re much more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence if you have a mental health problem.

"Unfortunately, not all conditions are treated equally in the media."

In a public opinion poll we did about mental health storylines on TV, 60 per cent of people said that watching a soap or drama featuring a character with a mental health problem had increased their understanding. However, almost the same percentage said that schizophrenia is more negatively portrayed than other mental health problems.

This is why on Wednesday night, watching ITV’s Girlfriends, I was upset to see a character that ticked so many outdated stereotype boxes. Carol is shown to behave obsessively towards men, lie to people (including the police) and have grandiose ideas about her singing career. So far so good, but then it’s ‘revealed’ that Carol once had a diagnosis of psychosis and has been an inpatient a mental institution on not one but two occasions.

As we know nothing more about Carol, her mental health problem seems to be the reason for her strange and disturbing behaviour. Indeed, anyone that comes into contact with her is clear about what she’s like, describing her as ‘deranged’ and calling her ‘Crazy Carol’. She’s very much painted as ‘the other’ or ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ - both views that have thankfully been stamped out in most areas of drama.

"I was upset to see a character that ticked so many outdated stereotype boxes."

The episode culminates in Carol letting herself in to one of the main character’s homes, brandishing a knife. She’s clearly planning to stab the woman in her bed but on the way kills poor Florence the cat (a very gruesome scene that provoked outrage on Twitter). Again, people on social media were quick to judge the character, many using the term ‘psycho’.

I don’t think Girlfriends was intended to be stigmatising, but it’s worrying that Carol’s story was probably never thought of as a mental health storyline. Most broadcasters would never dream of running storylines that were considered racist or homophobic, but the same consideration isn’t always made when it comes to the portrayal of mental health problems.

ITV have made some fantastic drama about mental health, including Cold Feet, which won best drama at our Media Awards last year. The depiction of the character Pete struggling with depression  was written with warmth and compassion and helped to show viewers that mental health is not something to be feared or shunned but something to be talked about and supported. 

"She’s painted as ‘the other’ or ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ - both views that have thankfully been stamped out in most areas of drama."

My work is to ensure that programme makers see how a mental health storyline could be damaging to public attitudes or how when done well, it can prompt help seeking and raise awareness for the better. 

We worked on around seventy storylines last year, mostly behind the scenes, checking scripts and involving people with lived experience to ensure that stories were realistic and sensitive.

Thankfully the majority of mental health storylines we work on turn out to be brilliant. It’s just a shame that some slip through the net and risk having a negative impact on the attitudes of TV viewers. 

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