At first, you wouldn’t necessarily list the character of Jean Slater in EastEnders as a particularly influential character on television. But think deeper and, like me, you will realise that Jean has had a huge impact on the viewing public since she first appeared on screen seven and a half years ago.
Her battle with bipolar disorder has opened the UK’s eyes up to what living with a mental health problem can really be like and, for this reason, Jean’s influence on how the audience perceive mental health problems now is seriously commendable.
Jean was by no means the first ever soap/television character to be shown regularly on screen living with a mental health problem. Plenty have come before her, so what is it about Jean that has made such a big difference?
The fact that EastEnders is still watched by an average of six to seven million people every episode is a big factor, as it means Jean’s part in the show is opened up to such a wide demographic.
Also, what’s refreshing about Jean is that she has become a 3D character; she has plenty of traits to her personality that have nothing to do with her mental health problem, and I think those watching have been heartened by this. It's brilliant that EastEnders never showed her as ‘just that woman who’s got bipolar disorder.'
In the show, Jean is seen as Stacey’s mum, chef at the Queen Vic, Ian’s friend, Shirley’s mate, Kat’s relative and of course, simply just Jean – a kind-hearted, well-meaning woman who just wants to be settled down and have a stable time in life. Yes, she can be zany and eccentric, but that's just who she is as a person.
Jean’s made people aware that there’s so much more to a human being than the mental health problem they live with and I think that’s why Jean has managed to survive in the show for so long. She was even brought back into the show after being written out – she’s a character who people can relate to in many different ways and in writing terms, a character that can have lots happen to her.
What’s also been interesting about Jean during her time in Walford is how the other characters have reacted to her. She has experienced prejudice from some – including potential love interests who’ve seemingly not been able to handle dating someone with bipolar disorder. Luckily, others have responded to her with warmth and compassion – which is how she came to have her happy ending upon her exit from the show. This has showed those watching that there are so many people out there who you can confide in, and who will understand and support you with no judgment.
Jean has been a television character that, despite all she's been through, has shown that strength and ultimately positivity can help a person strive. She has certainly helped a great number of those struggling in real life to manage their mental health, to seek help and support and hopefully summon their own determination to recover as well.