Leanne Charlotte explores the importance of primetime television in portraying health issues to aid the public’s understanding of stigmatised illnesses
Many of us students procrastinate by watching our favourite TV soap operas such as EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks. In recent years, these soaps have merged education with entertainment, often taking controversial topics and highlighting the key concerns facing those affected. Because soaps reach a much wider audience than most health media campaigns, their impact can shape public understanding of a range of issues and everyday challenges concerning the general public.
We become engrossed in the storylines involving our favourite characters, and this can have a huge impact on how we perceive forms of illnesses, in particular those concerning mental health. Previously, sufferers have been afraid to speak out about their experiences and seek help. The introduction of such storylines in soaps has opened the door to important discussion and research surrounding mental illness.
In Coronation Street, publican Steve Macdonald is a witty, unassuming and much-loved character. The storyline traces his developing symptoms of depression until he eventually agrees to see his GP and attend counselling. The Coronation Street team were commended for the research they undertook prior to the storyline which led to the excellent portrayal of the illness and its detrimental effects, encouraging sufferers to come forward and seek help. This is echoed in Emmerdale where Belle, following her involvement in a tragic death, shows mental health problems affecting a young teenager.
It is about time people realised the importance of recognising mental health issues in today’s society. The issues don’t mean a person is “crazy” or “violent”–rather it simply means they need guidance and support to overcome the obstacles which are in no way self-inflicted. I am so glad that the media are creating these storylines so individuals aren’t afraid to speak up and gain help. It shows how mental health problems can affect anyone of any age, gender and circumstance, and importantly, highlight that help is available and that sufferers are not alone. I can see how this could become the catalyst for viewers who identify with the problems being played out in ‘Soapland’ and encourage them to seek medical advice in reality.
Other serious health issues which have been covered recently include Emmerdale’s Cain Dingle having a life threatening brain aneurysm, Eastenders’ Carol Jackson’s battle to overcome breast cancer, and a Hollyoaks character coping with being HIV positive. All this is valuable because it reflects our real life challenges, and the influence soaps have on individuals shouldn’t be undermined. In the wake of the Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter sex abuse cases, and with the child grooming scandals from Yorkshire and Greater Manchester fresh in our minds, Emmerdale have featured a powerful storyline of sexual assault.
Alicia is attacked by a troubled 14-year-old schoolboy, Lachlan. She falls asleep following too much birthday champagne, but awakens to find him sexually assaulting her. This is a shocking event given that she has missed the warning signs of his infatuation, but the situation turns darker when she, in turn, is accused of grooming him and is then wrongly labelled a paedophile.
Some people have argued that this storyline is a step too far, and complaints have been made to Ofcom, but I feel that this is an important angle to explore. Just because something is controversial does not mean that soaps should ignore such storylines. Although some may see this as TV companies capitalising on people’s personal struggles and negative experiences, there’s a wider positive effect taking place as people become more educated on issues that matter.
Such controversial issues lead to increased activity on social media as viewers use Twitter or post on Facebook whilst the programme is being aired. I know that talking about issues such as mental health storylines via social media allows viewers to discuss with a wider community issues raised which may be relevant to their own lives, which is the first step to sufferers pursuing help and other individuals understanding their struggle.
It also changes the perception of issues which the viewers may not have had personal experience of and helps remove the stigma attached to certain illnesses. For me, this can only be a good thing.
Some storylines go beyond social media and become hot topics within newspapers and television news programmes. In Coronation Street, terminally ill Hayley Cropper’s decision to end her own life through assisted suicide caused heated debate across the UK. In the end, Hayley did not need assistance to drink the lethal drug, but her actions reignited fierce debate about the ‘right to die’.
Given that Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill is about to be given its third reading soon, this storyline did much to inform the public. I believe this shows how right soaps are to sensitively highlight such important topics.