Sensitive portrayals of people with mental health problems in television programmes such as Homeland and Coronation Street are helping to promote much better understanding of the conditions and even prompting sufferers to seek help, according to a report published on Tuesday.
It found that the representation of people with conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder in dramas and soap operas is playing a key role in positive changes in public attitudes.
The depiction of mental ill-health is becoming more authentic through characters such as Homeland’s CIA agent Carrie Mathison, who has bipolar disorder, and Coronation Street’s Steve McDonald, who has depression, researchers at the Glasgow Media Group found.
The report also praises shows such as EastEnders, Holby City, Hollyoaks, My Mad Fat Diary, and Orange is the New Black for helping to reverse the previously negative portrayals on screen of those with mental illness.
The group studied soaps, dramas and sitcoms on the main terrestrial channels between January and March this year and found “encouraging signs that mental health depictions have become more positive. More storylines have attempted to ‘normalise’ mental health problems and fewer characters with mental health problems are portrayed as violent”, says the report.
Careful handling of storylines such as Aaron in Emmerdale’s self-harming and Ian Beale’s depression in EastEnders reflect TV writers’ new-found realism and sensitivity, says the report, commissioned by the Time to Change campaign run by the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
There are far fewer simplistic, unhelpful and misleading depictions of stereotypes of mental illness, such as the “violent lunatic” or “mad genius”, it adds.
However, it criticises the portrayal of Moriarty in BBC One drama Sherlock. “Moriarty is shown being held in a padded cell, wearing a straitjacket. Although Moriarty’s evil villainy is based on a character from another era, this series was set in the present day and such outdated images about mental health can damage and misinform”, the report states.
The report states that 54% of 2,004 people surveyed by Populus who recalled seeing a character with mental health problems said it had improved their understanding.
And 48% said a show had changed their opinion about the type of person who can experience such illness, while 31% said it had prompted them to talk to loved ones or colleagues about mental health.
Peter Moffat, the Bafta award-winning screenwriter of Silk, said: “In a television era when too many documentaries are essentially freak shows written, shot and edited to ask an audience to laugh at people with mental health issues, writers of television drama have a special responsibility to work against stereotyping and to create characters who are complex and engaging.”
“It’s great to see these issues being highlighted on prime time television”, said Dr Martin McShane, NHS England’s director for people with long term conditions. “We want to reduce the stigma around mental ill health and encourage people to seek help as soon as they can. Featuring these issues in an authentic way can help to drive these messages home.”