Mad and Bad? The Negative Portrayal of Mental Health Issues on TV.






Mental health problems have become a great source of entertainment due to a belief amongst TV producers that people with mental health problems are dangerous, volatile and something to run away from – therefore providing high-drama TV. Emma Razi investigates.Fortunately, times are changing, and thanks to initiatives such as MIND’s annual media awards,people with mental health problems are being represented in a more realistic and believable fashion on TV today.


Last year’s winners included the popular soap opera Eastenders and the storyline that focused on the Slater family’s experience of bipolar disorder. The Eastenders team worked directly with MIND on the development of the storyline. This focused not only on the main character’s mental state but also the physical symptoms that accompany a crisis.Bob Bogle, a See Me Media Volunteer fromGlasgow, believes that realistic portrayals of mental health problems in soap operas can actually have a positive outcome on a viewer’s recovery.Bob explains:


“There is a character in Eastenders at the moment called Jean who has bipolar disorder. She’s a sympathetic character who is sometimes up and sometimes down and when she’s not doing so well, she turns to her circle of support. Her story doesn’t focus on her condition – she’s not defined by her condition.”

“A storyline from Hollyoaks had a profound affect on me. The character was experiencing severe hallucinations and was very unwell. Although my experience of mental illness is not the same as the characters – I think that the storyline highlighted how someone’s hallucinatory reality is very, very real to them. This is something many people don’t understandThe storyline really helped me to engage with friends and family, it encouraged me to talk to others about mental illness and helped them to understand me. I felt that this was good for my recovery.”

However, not all TV soap storylines can be praised for their realism and for aiding recovery. According to a study by the Glasgow Media Group (2010): “Mad and Bad is still alive and well on television, whether it is ‘Psycho Sally’ in Emmerdale or the sight of Chandler in Friends announcing: ‘Ding dong the psycho’s gone.’

The study, examined three months of drama programmes on British TV. Almost half (45%) of fictional characters with mental health problems had storylines depicting them as violent or posing a threat to others. These sensationalised storylines are not supported by crime statistics that show that people with serious mental health problems are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator.


Bob believes that it would be unrealistic to never show a character with mental health problems in crisis, however: “If producers are going to show people becoming unwell, it should be done realistically, explore the aftermath [of the crisis] and include the positive outcomes too.


“There is an assumption that only overly sensationalist storylines are going to grab viewer’s attention and that recovery stories are not good for viewing figures.”


In addition to linking mental health problems with violence, it is still common for derogatory language to be used on British TV. Just a few weeks ago See Me Scotland’s anti-stigma mental health campaign received complaints about the term ‘nutter’ and ‘psycho’ being used on Coronation Street. As part of their ‘Stigma Stop Watch’ initiative, See Me responded by writing to Coronation Street producers in order to explain the impact of using this type of language.

“Using this type of language on TV can be highly detrimental to an individual’s recovery journey. People who are very ill and vulnerable will hear terms like ‘nutter’ and think ‘do people think that of me’? This can really knock a person’s confidence”. Bob Bogle


On a more positive note, John Sawkins, a See Me Media Volunteer from Aberdeen, praises TV producers for featuring people with mental health problems on soap operas: “One in Four people experience mental illness at some point in their life, therefore mental illness is likely to affect every family in Scotland in some way. Many people who are unwell feel lonely and excluded – seeing people with similar challenges on the TV can help people feel included and accepted”.

John believes that characters should be “fully rounded” and not simply shown as “the one with bipolar”. In order to do this, TV producers need to move away from the assumption that characters in recovery do not win an audience.


The Glasgow Media Group’s research showed that audiences do like to see characters with a mental health problems, ‘living’ with their condition, without the condition being the main focus of their storyline. Focus group participants praised the US TV comedy ‘Scrubs’ for portraying a character with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The character was both successful (a doctor) but also vulnerable because he had a mental health problem. He was not singled out or mocked because of his OCD; instead he was accepted because he displayed vulnerabilities making him less intimidating to the other characters.


Is it time to take a closer look at the storylines around mental health problems? Is it possible to portray ‘hope’ rather than ‘fear’, ‘recovery’ rather than ‘crisis’ and still win an audience? Soaps love an empowerment story: ‘she left her cheating husband’, ‘he got the job against the odds’. It would be great to see: ‘she lost her husband to the nanny, survived a freak hurricane in Benidorm, married the local lotto winner, lost his millions on an online bingo site all whilst self-managing her borderline personality disorder’ – now that’s a story!


What are your views?


Do portrayals of mental health problems on TV help, or hinder recovery?


Do recovery stories make for good TV?


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