How the media must mind mental health

Stephen Fry’s recent disclosure of his attempted suicide last year highlights that mental illness does not discriminate between the “haves” and “have nots”, the famous and the “ordinary”. None of us are immune from the feelings Fry described.

The representation of mental illness in the media in recent years (you need only think of Frank Bruno’s treatment by the tabloids), in television dramas and soaps has not, over many years been empathic. People with mental health issues seem to be either suicidal or mostly violent and dangerous – the two extremes of mental health geared more towards boosting viewing figures than portraying realism and authenticity.

These exaggerated displays of mental health only perpetuate the stigma and stereotypes. In fact it would be fair to say media representation has often been ignorant, discriminatory, and at times criminalising towards the mentally ill. In fact earlier this month, the actress Glenn Close apologized for her depiction of a mentally ill woman in Fatal Attraction.

Sensationalistic storylines and stigmatising stereotyping have only served to misinform and cloud the viewers image of someone who is ill and needing help – but that someone could be any one of us at any time of our lives.

The Time To Change media advisory service, which I am involved in, was set up to change negative perceptions and offer advice and guidance to promote more realism and sensitivity when covering mental health storylines. Advising the soap Emmerdale on a storyline featuring Zak Dingle, the popular loveable rogue, felt like living a double life for a year as the programme documented how his mental ill health spiraled downwards. Emmerdale provided me with a unique test: to positively influence a popular soap storyline. It afforded me the opportunity to use my own personal experience of depression, and lifetime working as a qualified mental nurse, to bring realism and authenticity for a change. I took on the role with a gusto I had not felt for many years.

I immersed myself in the role to the point of drowning. I knew that only by doing this could I truly empathise with Zak’s plight and engage the viewing public. I read countless scripts going over each one with a fine toothcomb burning the midnight oil. I spoke for hours on the telephone with Fiona, the researcher, and my mobile phone was constantly in use for texting and talking over the scenes. I so wanted this to be right.

I felt duty bound to make a difference having been given this opportunity. I advised that showing Zak’s vulnerability and fragile emotional state, rather then the often stigmatising “Mad axeman is dangerous” image, would encourage the viewer to also empathise more. This worked well and delivered the right message to the viewers.

I was made redundant halfway through this work and understandably my self-confidence and esteem was badly dented. In fact it became non-existent. Conversely my work with Emmerdale helped me regain this. I felt I could empathise more with the Zak character as my mood plummeted. I became Zak, or at least this was how I felt at the time. We walked the same troubled path for a while.

The advisory service will continue to influence and craft storylines around mental health. We will continue to provide personal advice and information to researchers, directors, journalists and the stars themselves to make mental health depictions credible. We will provide guidelines and key tips such as to try to allow the characters storylines time to develop. And that recovery can be a long process.

We will encourage the listening of peoples personal stories, and encourage careful thinking about how the other characters in the soap will react. The use of humour is not necessarily a bad thing and bringing in some humour and warmth will challenge peoples often misinformed stereotypes of mental health.

Mental illness doesn’t make people bad so by reinforcing this we can discourage programmes using a mental health storyline to try and explain bad or strange behaviour. For far too long criminalisation of the mentally ill has existed on TV and Radio and this misperception must change.

We have a long road to walk in our media advisory work to get this right. Or as near to accurate as we can. It is crucial that we walk this long and no doubt winding road together. Through collaboration and mutual respect we will make damaging stereotyping of mental illness a distant memory in the media. It is a win-win situation for all concerned.

* Read more thoughts from Lol on the Emmerdale storyline here

* Tips for storylines featuring mental health issues that create dramatic and interesting narratives without alienating audiences, resorting to stereotypes or using a mental illness to try and explain “bad behaviour”:
– to make a charactor plausible and accurate, speak to as many people who have mental health problems as possible. They are the best consultants available and most want to see accuracy on screen
– think about your camera shots. Certain mental health conditions can lead people to feel isolated or to experience altered reality. This can be reflected through close up shots, POV shots or hand held
give the storyline enough time to develop. It is common that symptoms of mental health problems will manifest over a period of time and build in intensity, rather than develop and explode in the space of one episode
think about how other characters react. Stigma and discrimination can be as bad as the mental health problem itself for many people. Can you show any empathy from others?
get expert advice from mental health charities and experts to ensure that the symptoms you are showing on screen are relevant and realistic
think of your dramatic climax carefully. Most people with mental health problems are not violent so it is unrealistic for a storyline to always end in violence or homicide

Based on information from the Time to Change media advisory service. Read more here.

About Lol Butterfield

Lol, 51, is a qualified mental health nurse with a 30-year career in mental health services as a clinician. More recently, he has become involved with working towards eliminating the stigma and discrimination of mental health, which is his passion. Until recently Lol was an advisor for the ‘Time To Change’ national anti-stigma campaign covering the north east of England where he lives. His book, Sticks and Stones, is an autobiography detailing his childhood experience of stigma as a consequence of his father's mental ill health.
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