Our beloved Philip Schofield has just hosted another raucous British Soap Awards and the usual best dressed / worst dressed nonsense has hit the headlines again. But the soaps do a lot more for us than generating gossip on the cobbles, leaving us hanging with duff-duffer moments and making us gasp for breath as something else falls from the Yorkshire skies creating critical chaos in the dales.

If you Google soap operas there are all sorts of mean comments about the shows. They’ve been described as ‘mindless drivel’ and the ‘joke’ of television.

But I am going to say this. I’M A SOAP FAN AND I’M PROUD!

Of course I take the piss sometimes. How many villainous murderers can Weatherfield produce? And why is Emmerdale prone to so many disasters? But come on, that’s the entertainment isn’t it? Don’t pretend you don’t love it!

On the other hand, beyond the obvious entertainment, the soaps are educating us. No, really, they are.

They’re not teaching us about art history or trigonometry, but they are teaching us about human nature, society and politics. And let’s be honest, if we get that bit right, we’ll be in a better position to work out the hypotenuse in maths class or see the meaning behind the famous Hieronymous Bosch triptych. Because how we live as a community, our level of curiosity and our ability to debate drives so much of what we do and who we are.

Yes….I’m still talking about the soaps.

I’ve been absolutely blown away by some of the storylines that have played out on the screens recently. I’m a big, long-standing fan of EastEnders and Corrie, in particular. And they’re certainly not shy at tackling some of today’s issues.

Let’s start with Corrie and the David Platt storyline. Jack P Shepherd certainly deserved to walk away with the Best Actor award the other night.

The story highlighted the issue, and impact, of rape. We saw David Platt drugged by mechanic Josh Tucker and then struggling to come to terms with the reality of what happened.

Since the story was aired, one charity, Survivors Manchester, saw an increase in calls to their helpline according to Huff Post, where boys and men felt more able to seek help.

But the story isn’t painting a rose-tinted picture of what happens when a report is made. We see Josh jeering at David after he reported the crime to the police saying that nobody will believe him (we are yet to see the conclusion of the case) but we see a much more confident David respond by saying it doesn’t matter, because if Josh ever tries to do this again, his card is marked with the police – he will be found out. And that’s a bit enough impact for him.

Corrie - Aiden imageWe’ve also seen the recent suicide storyline which showed us that we can’t judge how anybody is feeling by what we see. Aidan was struggling, there were small hints of it in the show some time ago according to Digital Spy, but the Connor family were unaware.

Following this storyline, suicide prevention charity, Papyrus, reporting having its busiest day ever on its helplines. It got people talking, seeking help.

And we know that talking can save lives – so these storylines may actually be helping to save lives, never mind educating people about the complexities of suicide and suicidal ideation. It’s a multi-pronged approach to inform, empower and educate people to be there for one another.

And now over to Walford….where we’ve seen tragedy on the Square following a knife crime incident that resulted in the death of much-loved character Shakil Kazemi. The producers looked to former EastEnders star, Brooke Kinsella to ensure that it was told authentically and responsibly. Tragically, Brooke’s brother, Ben, lost his life after being stabbed to death whilst out celebrating his GCSE results in 2008.

As Daniel Kilkelly said for Digital Spy: “While TV news will often stick to facts, figures, legal details and government policy, EastEnders is in a unique position to show the effects of knife crime on families and an entire community.”

I completely agree. I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to work with soap researchers reviewing storylines that relate to mental health, through my role with Mind as a freelance script advisor – part of a fabulous team that contribute to responsible storytelling about mental health.

I actually led a workshop for housing provider Home Group back in 2016 at one of its mental health services about the impact of soap storylines on mental health. Residents at this supported accommodation service lived with severe and enduring mental health problems, meaning they needed day to day support. This is obviously because of their vulnerabilities, but many of the wonderful people I met complained of stigma around violence. Because they hear voices sometimes, some people assumed they must be violent people. How wrong can you be?!

They told me that Stacey’s post partum psychosis storyline in EastEnders was a huge help, because they liked the fact that it portrayed a character we came to know and love experiencing psychosis. Not somebody being introduced as a ‘crazy character’ and being known only for their illness. An illness does not make a whole person, after all.

Soaps are reaching people in a way that doctors, teachers, the police and others can’t. That’s not to say they can do it on their own – of course they can’t. But if positive conversation is sparked by a soap, then we are more likely to get people speaking to doctors, teachers and the police.

And television is playing a role in the way people think and act about mental health, crime and social issues. Hopefully people will think twice before stigmatising someone because of their mental illness, or will seriously consider the potential consequences of carrying a knife with them and leave it at home. Perhaps somebody will feel empowered to speak out about an assault, or a family member might think to ask ‘how are you doing’? to someone they love who may possibly be struggling.

I think we should stop belittling the soaps. Their impact is enormous and their potential greater still. I, for one, applaud them for playing a critical role in society, education and, of course, entertainment!

 

My book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, Naming and Shaming Mental Health Stigmas is out now.

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