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followed it since it started in 1985, watching a soap opera for me is my time in the day to ‘switch off’ from reality and relax. Like all soaps, Eastenders has covered many storylines, some controversial. Back in 1986, we saw the producer, then Tony Holland, bring in a mental health storyline, where Arthur Fowler, played by Bill Treacher, suffered depression culminating in a breakdown on Christmas day in the series. He battled with depression which was shown to be triggered by unemployment and financial strains, low self esteem as he could not support his family and then turning to crime – stealing the Christmas Club money and subsequently being imprisoned for 28 days. More recently Eastenders decided to bring in another mental health issue, bipolar disorder (or as it’s formerly know, manic depression) - Jean Slater, played by actress Gillian Wright and daughter Stacey Branning, played by Lacey Turner. This storyline pricked up my ears, as I am someone who is in recovery from bipolar disorder and who also works as a volunteer with people with mental health issues, including BD. I was very interested to see how this would be portrayed. I feel showing Jean and her daughter Stacey both as having bipolar disorder, first Jean, and then Stacey as
well, highlighted that these types of conditions are hereditary, but this has not been proved entirely by genetics with bipolar disorder, therefore if one of your parents have it, it does not mean to say a child will follow on and suffer with it, although the chances are probably slightly higher. Jean’s character came across as one of a scatty flighty middle aged lady, but of course BD can and does affect anyone of any character and no one is immune from it, like every other disease on this planet. It did not highlight the different types of bipolar disorder, nor dual diagnosis eg. Alcohol/drug addiction with bipolar disorder. Gillian, Lacey and Bill have all done great acting in portraying the distress, mood states and behaviours typical of someone suffering with bipolar disorder – the highs and the lows in bipolar and the depths of depression. Life events were shown as a big factor in triggering off problems, in Jean’s case death of her husband. From the acting perspective showing what is going on in someone’s head is a very difficult thing to do, the body language and actions of the actors can show this to a certain extend. When it comes to real life, even people who are ill themselves find it hard to express what and how they are feeling and this often comes out in different ways and in ambiguous actions and emotions. In contrast, showing how carer’s deal with their loved ones, is again a totally different perspective, but can have similar effects and this will be as individual as each person.
For me now, I find it hard to think of people as patients/unwell people - and carers, even doctors, nurses, phychiatrist etc. although respect each’s knowledge base and experience – it immediately divides people up. We all have a part to play in our lives, and this is constantly changing, as we change. We live on a continuium line of wellness to illness, and hope to keep somewhere in the middle of this line, particularly important if you have bipolar disorder. Again, my work as a volunteer, to me means I am just one person of many on that line. Time is limited obviously with the soaps like Eastenders, so portrayal is not always as how things maybe in reality due to these time constraints. I remember watching the episode where Stacey was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, which was very intense, but for me half an hour programme could not give the process of being sectioned justice, but then I must remind myself it is a soap! Maybe an hour long special for that episode would have been better, and more informative to the viewers as well as being a drama. During Stacey and Jeans bipolar episode we had flashes of insight into a mental health ward, but again I felt this area could have been expanded, potentially there could be a whole new soap – based on a mental health ward – but then we are crossing into the realms of BBC’s Holby City! As a volunteer, although my work currently is in the community, I do hope to also work within the hospital setting – I remember the first time I was hospitalised a really nice volunteer took some time to chat with me, and I haven’t forgotten
that ‘it bought some normality into such an alien place – going into a new environment like a mental health ward for the first time like anything else new is a real eye opener - although you don’t always realise it at the time!
Mental health issues can destroy relationships and normal life – indeed Stacey had an early-troubled life, her father dying when she was 11 and mother suffering with bipolar disorder. Stacey moves in with her Uncle, Charlie Slater (Derek Martin) as her relationship with her mother had broken down due both their problems. It’s important that people and families who experience BD and other mental health issues, are treated in the best ways possible which suit their needs, to help them regain the balance in their lives, so getting back to ‘normal’ and not being isolated or discriminated against, but doing what every normal person does and wants to do and to lead a hopefully fulfilling life. This can take some considerable time, where trust has to be built and an understanding by all those people involved has to be reached. After the death of Stacey’s best friend, and Stacey’s general lifestyle at the time, this culminates in her having a bipolar episode. It also highlighted the resistance shown in people not having insight into the illness, who believe there is nothing wrong with them. She was non-compliant with taking medication, and this culminated in her becoming paranoid and
psychotic – a very scary place to be. This is where hospitalisation was the only option for Stacey. Stigma and barriers against mental health is an ongoing battle with campaigns being constantly run by the major mental health charities – Rethink, Mind, The Lottery Fund and Comic Relief run an annual national campaign against mental health stigma. I guess the media, including TV and soaps can and are playing their part in breaking down these barriers, by making these issues more open and enlightening viewers on the subject. For me, and someone who has travelled along the line from illness to wellness with bipolar disorder, I now want to help other people in distress in whatever way I can, and in an unthreatening and mutual way. The hardest type of stigma can be from within families, which are very difficult to overcome and change. It’s that acceptance of a mental health condition, and often other peoples insecurities which cause the barriers and attitudes. We go back to the line of wellness and illness – it can affect anyone, be it mental health or cancer. As a volunteer, I now have contact with people living in the community, who most of them have been an inpatient on a mental health ward at some point, and usually more than once and who are under the care of a psychiatrist and community mental health team. Over time, every situation changes and hopefully every persons life improves, if interventions and compliance are secured in place. However, this is not always the case for many reasons, and we then have
to think about the high statistics of suicides caused by mental health problems, and the reasons. If we go back to Eastenders, and Arthur Fowler – his depression appeared to stem from social and economic factors, so now bring that into ‘real life’ and ‘real time’ we are all affected by social and economic factors – we have all been affected by the latest recession to hit the country and world – and unfortunately we are not out of the woods yet with regards to possibly a further dip in the recession. There is evidence showing that the economic down turn has increased suicide rates in this country, and that three times as many man as women kill themselves. I can’t really not mention another controversial storyline aired on Eastenders recently, and that’s the one of Ronnie Mitchell (played by Samatha Womack). Here due to various phychological traumas in her past, including loss of two children, which were not addressed, Eastenders pushed the boundaries to show what can happen with people’s behaviours, minds and actions. Ronnie’s new baby son dies of cot death on New Years Eve, and she takes him across to the Queen Vic, and swaps him with Kat’s baby. The storyline caused huge controversy with the public, and there were record amount of complaints to the BBC. To me I understand if very sensitive matters have already affected people, it can be traumatic to be reminded, but for those who want a deeper insight into unknown territories then surely this can only be an education. We all have choices in what we expose
ourselves to. If this had been a documentary, would there have been so many complaints? Taking away any of the above, to me this highlights mental health issues need addressing, and they need addressing at the time, like an unlit match, at some point if too many sparks are present, the match will be set off, and could start a fire within ourselves which could become out of our control. So I am now doing my little bit, to maybe help stop that match being lit in other people, and indeed myself. Another factor which we have not considered so far is the increasing use or abuse of alcohol and drugs – which is a massive area – alcohol contributing to suicide – it’s used in two thirds of all suicide attempts and also a depressant. It’s excess use is also having problematic effects on the elderly, and I fear that the younger generation coming up now, maybe worse affected. To finish, I believe there are two words that may help in the continued improvement of mental health and they are - Education and Communication Both of these are incorporated in to so many things in our lives already, but can always be improved upon. Eastenders and media can continue to communicate and hopefully educate us on issues including mental health. People working alongside other people, sharing their experiences, expertise, and time, is where I feel volunteering comes into play.
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