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TV mental health stories just scratch the surface

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TV producers often miss the big picture when they plot storylines about mental health problems, a study reveals.

Popular drama and soaps get people thinking and talking about mental health, but don’t go deep enough, found research out today in Critical Public Health.

Media sociologist Dr Lesley Henderson studied how TV writers balance well-researched, authentic stories and characters with entertaining audiences.  She questioned people with experience of mental health problems who advise shows including EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City. 

Producers covering mental health want to get it right, Dr Henderson says. But they tend to focus on cosmetic details like the colour of pills. And the broader issues such as the role of medication, treatment and recovery, get sidelined. 

“It is still very much a medical model presented in mainstream soaps and drama,” said Dr Henderson, who lectures at Brunel University London. 

“Actually mental health services have far more complex and varied ways of helping people in distress, than we typically see on TV. What we see on screen is a very narrow perspective on mental health. There’s very little shown of community based solutions and the wider context of managing mental distress in everyday life. 

Fictional characters with a mental health diagnosis often get stigmatised or labelled, the study found, with problems framed around the person, rather than across society. And mental illness often gets blurred with criminality and violence without showing a character’s backstory which may fuel the idea that mental distress and violence are inevitably linked, the article says.

“The wider context of the ongoing struggle over medicalisation, treatment and recovery is often absent,” Dr Henderson notes. “These perspectives offer an alternative vein of story-telling that could broaden our understanding of the social meaning of suffering and help challenge the stigma that many people in distress still face today.” 

Popular television and public mental health: creating media entertainment from mental distress is published today in Critical Public Health. Find out more about Communication and Media Studies at Brunel.

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis - Senior Media Relations Officer, Media Relations
hayley.jarvis@brunel.ac.uk