OldVenue, TV

Mental illness on television

Just a warning before I begin, this article discusses the experience and representations of suicide and self-harm in a way that could be distressing to some people.

Recently, I had what I’m sure is a very common experience. I turned on the TV and found myself witnessing a scene that, without context, seemed bizarre. A young woman stood in the middle of a crowded pub, looking terrified, as she watched a man hold her baby. When another character asked her what was wrong, the screen turned red, and the camera zoomed in on her distraught face, as she cried “I see the Devil!”. The scene I was watching happened to be from EastEnders and while the scene did take me aback; I don’t feel entitled to pass judgement. I don’t watch EastEnders, so I don’t know how well this particular storyline – Stacey Branning’s (Lacey Turner) struggle with postpartum psychosis – has been dealt with. Upon doing further research, I now know that the writers of the programme worked with Mind and Bipolar UK on the storyline. However, seeing the scene in isolation got me thinking: in an age when mental illness is becoming more and more talked about in society, what is the best way of representing those suffering with these conditions on our screens?

There’s no denying that representation is important. With mental health education being almost non-existent in our schools, and the general “stiff-upper-lip” attitude of British society, TV is one of the most universal mediums for getting information about mental illness out there. However, there is a very thin line between genuine representation and using mental illness purely for shock value. In the most recent series of Downton Abbey for example, we witness Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) attempt to take his own life. This could have been a good way of addressing the mental toll of the isolation experienced by some members of the LGBT community, but when we next see Thomas he’s sat up in bed, seemingly unaffected by what should have been an incredibly traumatic experience.

Suicide isn’t that simple. It’s not a matter of being patched up and sent on your way; it’s a lot more than the act. The experience of getting into such a desperate state in which death seems like the best option is traumatic in itself. This trauma is portrayed devastatingly well in This Is England 88’, in which Lol (Vicky McClure) overdoses on painkillers as a result of trauma she’s experienced both in childhood and later in her life. Nothing is hidden from the audience; we watch as she gets her stomach pumped, images flashing across the screen to show us exactly why she tried to commit suicide. Whilst it is incredibly difficult to watch, crucially, it is honest, and that’s how portrayals of mental illness should be.

This need for honesty clashes with the tendency modern media has to romanticise mental illness. The ‘beautiful suffering’ narrative seems to be getting more common, despite many mentally ill people speaking out about how damaging it is. This goes hand in hand with the idea that mentally ill people can be ‘fixed’ with love. Teen Wolf – a show that, up until this point, had been pretty good at depicting anxiety and panic attacks – features a scene where Stiles Stilinski (Dylan O’Brien) has a panic attack. In response, his long-time crush Lydia Martin (Holland Roden) kisses him, which appears to calm him down. Panic attacks are an overwhelming experience, where the sufferer can often feel like they’re trapped and losing control. While the kiss may have served as a distraction, I doubt that, realistically, it would have done anything to bring someone down from a panic attack. Coupled with the romantic music that warbles in the background while the kiss is taking place, it seems that the Teen Wolf writers are using Stiles’s mental illness as a vehicle for romance.

There’s nothing beautiful about mental illness. While I don’t think this is the right platform to discuss my own ordeals, I can tell you that much from first-hand experience. Mental illness is terrifying and, more than anything, isolating. The oh-so-popular ‘beautiful suffering’ narrative often implies that a saviour, someone who will come along, kiss your scars and tell you you’re beautiful, and subsequently everything will be okay. That’s not real, and it doesn’t do anyone any good pretending that it is. Mental illness doesn’t bring you closer to people; in fact it pushes you further away. This isolation is captured effectively in an ongoing Emmerdale storyline in which Aaron Livesy (Danny Miller) struggles with self-harm. It’s a plot arc that doesn’t pull any punches, showing the reality of what many people go through on a day-to-day basis: it shows feelings of fear and shame, the secrecy from family and friends. When his struggle comes out into the open, he is not met with understanding right away, but fear and misplaced anger from loved ones. It’s not enjoyable to witness but, as with This Is England, it’s honest in a way that so many portrayals aren’t. It’s important to remember that, in the internet age, for every black and white photo of a razor blade posted for likes on Tumblr, there’s a person out there suffering in silence, with an addiction that even they themselves don’t fully understand.

Mental illness is never an easy thing to address. However, when we’re faced with such staggering statistics as the one in four people who suffer with some form of mental illness during their lifetime, it’s hardly something we can afford to ignore. If television is to aid society in its understanding of mental illness, we need stories that do those affected justice. It’s a subject too important to be tackled half-heartedly. We need TV shows that are dedicated, sensitive, and, above all, honest.


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July 2021
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