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Mental And Physical Health Portrayal In Soaps (Or - Why Is There A "Dividing Line" Between The Two?)

This blog post came about as a result of a discussion with Dr Derek Lee (it is the first time I have ever used him in his "official/professional" capacity as a Clinical Psychologist on here - I usually raid his Flickr account for brilliant photographs).

I was complaining about the differences between the portrayal of Mental Health issues versus Physical Disabilities in soaps when he kindly agreed to provide the "Commentary" at the bottom of this blog post.

Recently we have seen storylines in British Soaps portraying the “extreme” forms of Mental Health issues (Bipolar, Nervous Breakdown, Suicidal feelings, Post Partum Psychosis, etc).



Last year I attended a conference which was run as a collaboration between Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living (LCiL) and DeMontfort University in Leicester. One of the topics of the talks was about the portrayal of Disabled People in the media. The example used at the start of one of the talks was the difference in the portrayal of the athletes in the London 2012 Olympic brochure (where the athletes were photographed in evening wear) and the London 2012 Paralympic brochure (which focused more on the athletes playing the sports (and, in some cases, focusing on the equipment they used).



The discussion slowly expanded to the portrayal of people with Mental Health issues in the soaps (EastEnders being the example stated). One of the questions from the floor was about why the soaps seem to insist on portraying the most severe Mental Health issues (people in crisis) without showing people coping with the milder variations in their day to day lives without any major difficulties.



As someone pointed out – not everybody with a Mental Health issue is a danger to themselves and others.



This started me thinking about physical disabilities and their portrayal in soaps.



I asked a question about why physical disabilities were avoided as much as possible. For example, you would never see someone like me being portrayed in a soap. The answer came back – soaps like to put a positive spin on physical disabilities. (This may explain why you never see a soap character - with what might be classified as an “invisible” sight problem - who may have difficulties seeing the bottles behind the bar even with their glasses on.) Apparently, people with wheelchairs and white sticks or Guide Dogs are seen as more “positive” than someone who tries to keep their independence as much as possible by acting like everybody else. Either that or they are simply more recognisable as “Disabled people”???



For the most part the characters on soaps have Mental Health Issues which are so severe the characters are a danger to themselves and others, or are wandering around with absolutely no Health (Mental or Physical) whatsoever.



Surely, there has to be a happy medium???





I think soaps can play a very important role in raising awareness of a wide range of social issues that impact on individuals and those around them. This needs to be done sensitively and proportionately, and has to be balanced against the need to have engaging and dramatic story-lines. Soaps are after all a form of entertainment, and their popularity makes them ideal vehicles for highlighting homelessness, physical disabilities, drug addiction, alcohol dependence, domestic abuse (I am thinking here of a current story-line in The Archers on Radio 4), dementia, PTSD (e.g. Sharon after she was assaulted a while ago ), bi-polar disorder and post puerperal psychosis.



It is difficult to see how depicting less severe forms of mental health problems could be portrayed in a dramatic story line. In some ways, all soap characters have “issues” of some kind, and these are played out in their inter-relationships and unfolding “soap life” stories. Are there many you would invite into your home?!


The same argument probably applies to the less easy to depict physical disabilities. I do not remember any characters with sight problems or hearing problems – maybe the national charities for neglected disabilities should be making the case to the programme commissioners?

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