May is Mental Health Awareness Month and here at 25YL, we want to highlight some of the television shows and characters that spoke to us directly about this sensitive subject. This week, Martin Hearn looks at UK soap operas, what various storylines are doing to remove the stigma around mental health, and how they’re actually saving lives.
There’s an outdated stereotype that still exists saying that soap operas were created for women so therefore only women should watch them, and any man who watches them isn’t a “real man.” I myself have been ridiculed numerous times over the years as I’ve been watching them since I was a young boy. You still see the same kind of bullying taking place in today’s forums. What is it about soap operas that people take an issue with? Here in the UK, shows such as Eastenders, Coronation Street, and Hollyoaks are now largely used as a platform to raise awareness for real-life issues that people are facing. They highlight what’s going on in people’s lives in the hopes that it will help them, educate others, and perhaps even save a life. How can watching something that helps so many people still be used as a means to insult?
When I went to school during the 1990s, we weren’t taught about mental health issues or anything even remotely related to them. In fact, I don’t even think the term “mental health” was ever once uttered by a single teacher back then. These people were there to educate us, so why weren’t we being educated on such a huge issue that can affect absolutely anybody?
By my early teens, I knew something was wrong with me but I didn’t know what it was. I now know I was suffering from depression and various anxiety issues, but how could I have possibly known that back then? I was 14, uneducated on mental health, and all I had to base anything on was schoolyard gossip that “some people had crazy problems and tried to kill themselves.” It sounds silly that it was only 20 years ago, yet we didn’t have things like school counsellors to go to for help. We really didn’t have anyone to talk to about personal problems. How were we supposed to get the help we needed and begin to understand our own problems if we didn’t even know what those problems were?
Eastenders: Jean and Stacey Slater
“I just want it to stop, Mum. I know what it’s like, it goes round and round, up and down. I don’t want to go down…I’m scared of going down.”
Back in the early 2000s, Eastenders introduced us to the iconic Slater family, including troubled Stacey (Lacey Turner) and her mother Jean (Gillian Wright). Jean has bipolar disorder, and her condition took centre stage for their earlier storylines, but it was later discovered that Stacey was suffering from it too. After the death of her father and the disappearance of her brother Sean (more on him later), Stacey became Jean’s sole carer from around age 11. Jean was diagnosed but often didn’t take her medication, which resulted in her behaviour becoming more and more erratic and even led to her being sectioned in a mental health facility after a suicide attempt.
There’s a beautiful scene in which Jean sits in the bath and, as Stacey washes her hair for her, she says that she’s frightened of everything; she says things she doesn’t mean and then asks what she’s going to do. Jump forward four years, and Stacey has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As she sits in the bath, with Jean washing her hair, she repeats those familiar lines about not meaning what she’d said and that she’s scared. The roles have now been reversed and Jean must finally adopt a maternal role and become the caregiver in the relationship. The re-creation and reversal of the original scene was so perfectly done that, despite being on our screens four years later, it truly showed us the same story through different eyes.
I don’t suffer from bipolar disorder but this storyline is something that got people openly talking about mental health in its various forms. It was finally getting the word out there that not all illnesses are visible and noticeable. The show taught us these things and I owe a lot of my early mental health education to this storyline. It helped me discover what was really wrong with me and what others around me had been going through. When I was growing up, my own mother was suffering very badly from depression and I didn’t even realise what was really going on. I knew she was unwell but I didn’t know what it was. I wasn’t taught at school what I myself was secretly going through, so how could I know what someone else was struggling with?
My confusion as to what was happening with my own mind (as well as other issues like being bullied) made me act out and become a not-very-nice teenager; looking back, this probably didn’t make life any easier for my mother. She always looked after me, and when I saw the way Stacey looked after Jean it made me regret not looking after her more on the days that she needed it. I blame the schools for not teaching us about these things. If I was more educated in what was happening then I could have helped more and wouldn’t have to live with the constant regret of failing her. Thankfully, she’s a lot better now.
Originally Stacey tried to hide just how bad Jean’s condition had gotten from the rest of the family, and did the same after her own diagnosis. She tried to hide her own condition by masking it with the behaviour she considered normal. It’s sometimes a natural reaction to try and hide what’s really going on with our lives and, while it does feel like a good idea at the time, it’s often making things worse.
Hollyoaks: Scott Drinkwell
“What is it about someone different that offends other people so much? I can’t change the way I walk, talk and act…And I can’t change the way that they think.”
In the Chester-based soap Hollyoaks, Scott Drinkwell (Ross Adams) is one of those marmite types: characters that people are either going to love or hate. He’s camp, he’s loud, he’s over the top, he wears garish clothes, he’s unapologetic, and he loves the drama—but what if this is all a facade to hide his vulnerabilities and internal troubles? This is exactly what was happening. Scott had been bullied for the majority of his life just because of the simple fact he was gay and acted differently to “normal” people. Bullying is a huge cause of mental health issues, particularly in children. Being on the receiving end of it can cause us to try to change ourselves to fit in and even wear a mask to hide our true selves.
There was an outpouring of shock on social media when he suddenly attempted suicide last year, with the same statement always being made: “This storyline is so unbelievable. Scott is the life and soul of the party, so there’s no way he would try to kill himself.” What people couldn’t seem to understand was that this was the whole point of the storyline. It was trying to show people that just because someone looks all fine and happy on the outside, it doesn’t mean that they’re fine and happy on the inside. I know that feeling all too well.
In my twenties, I was still at a stage where I didn’t speak out about my mental health issues. Instead, like Scott, I thought that making myself look smart, happy, and entertaining to be around was the solution to my problems. I wore nice clothes, I drank a lot, I went on too many nights out, I went out of my way to keep the people around me laughing and entertained, but I didn’t know that in doing these things I was sending myself down a self-destructive path. I wasn’t seeking any kind of help; I just blindly thought I was helping myself by acting happy. But why do we put on an act? Why do we try to change ourselves just because other people have a problem?
Scott’s suicide attempt wasn’t successful and he was hospitalised. One thing that I find myself asking a lot is: was his suicide attempt genuine or was it a desperate cry for help? He had spent so much of his life not being able to talk about his problems that perhaps he couldn’t find any other way to get help. He deserved to be helped, both professionally and personally, but instead, there were people who were angry about his actions. Are people angry about suicide because they can’t see that someone they care about is struggling, or are they angry because they think it’s a selfish act?
Coronation Street: Aidan Connor
“I like to think that we look out for each other around here, and without being nosy, know what’s going on in each other’s lives. But you don’t, do you? Not that I knew him that well, just to say hello to really. I hoped I’d have listened, had he ever wanted to speak to me.”
When Coronation Street‘s Aidan Connor (Shayne Ward) made the decision to end his life in May 2018, there was a similar sort of reaction to Scott’s suicide attempt in Hollyoaks. People thought that the storyline was an unbelievable one because there weren’t any major warning signs that his character was struggling prior to his suicide. But this wasn’t the case; the writers had cleverly planted small signs in the months prior to his death. On first viewing, these details may not have meant much to most people. A cliché that exists in all soap operas is that they are centred around a close-knit community in which everybody knows everybody else’s business. This story broke that cliché and made the point that we will truly never know everything that’s going on with another person, for if we did, then we would see a tragedy like this coming.
What we saw on screen wasn’t just subtle and clever; it was sensitive, too. At the end of one episode, we just saw Aidan sat crying in his home, and the next episode began with the morning after. He had left a note for his family telling them not to enter the bathroom and to call the police instead. We didn’t see how he’d done it, we never saw a body, and it wasn’t mentioned in the weeks after how he had done it. Instead, the focus was on the reactions of family, friends, neighbours, etc. This was one of the reasons why this story was so important. It was showing us how the people that are part of a suicide victim’s life are victims too. They have to live with the loss, the grief, and the feeling that they’ve failed as a parent, relative, or friend.
I made various suicide attempts in my early twenties and I’ll openly admit that some of them were actually just cries for help. I was young, confused, and didn’t know what to do to get help, so my desperation led me to a place I hope I never go back to. During the few times that I did fully intend to end my life, I never thought about what comes next, the aftermath, or the people I would be leaving behind. It sounds selfish to say that I didn’t think about other people, but when your head is in a place so dark, it’s hard to think about anything but escaping. Do I regret my actions? Yes. Do I feel like I had no other choice at the time? Yes.
Watching a story like Aidan’s obviously brings back a lot of these dark memories for me. But in all honesty, they just make me think how lucky I am for finding a way back from the edge, from sparing my family the trauma, and for finding reasons to live again. We can’t erase the dark times from our pasts and remembering them does us no harm. In fact, remembering the dark times shows us how far we’ve come and how strong we are for overcoming them.
During the scenes set in the aftermath, neighbour Gail Platt (Helen Worth) delivers a powerful monologue which plays out over the scenes of people learning of what happened. At first, it feels strange that Gail would deliver this speech as she has no real connection to Aidan, but then you realise that this is the point of it. It’s to show us how far the reaction to something so tragic can reach, and that news like that really can affect somebody regardless of how well they knew a person. The monologue was actually nominated for a BAFTA this year but sadly didn’t win.
The storyline did win with its intentions, however, as it actually helped people and finally gave them a voice. Phone calls to helplines such as The Samaritans and Hope Line UK skyrocketed after these episodes aired, and people were finally asking for help. They didn’t want to end up like Aidan; they wanted to take a chance on talking. Can something so simple as talking to somebody else really be all it takes to save a life?
Eastenders: Sean Slater
“Whatever life gives you…somewhere in there, there’s a little glimmer. Now, you find it. And you grab it. And you hold it tight and, whatever it is, it will grow. Now, you take the people who love you and you hold them to you. And whatever you’re feeling right now…it will pass.”
A lot of you will know Robert Kazinsky for his role as Macklyn Warlow in True Blood, but did you know one of his first big breaks was appearing in the British soap Eastenders? When I discussed Jean and Stacey Slater earlier, I briefly mentioned that Stacey had a brother, Sean. Starting back in 2006, Robert Kazinsky originally played Sean for two and a half years but was recently asked back for a guest appearance in April and May of 2019. After it was announced that he would be returning for a short stint, we all initially thought it was because of his mother Jean, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was undergoing treatment. While this did play a big factor in him coming back, it was revealed that he would be taking part in a huge mental health storyline.
Since the introduction of the Slater family, the focus had very much been on Jean and Stacey’s bipolar disorder. The state of Sean’s mental health was never questioned or even thought about. Sean was a typical bad boy and trouble seemed to follow him around. In his original years on the show, we learned that he was returning from the army and had been living with the secret guilt of causing his father’s death during a disagreement resulting in him punching him. Sean married the only woman he’s ever loved, Roxy Mitchell (Rita Simons), but after discovering the baby they were raising together wasn’t his, he promptly left.
Fast forward to 2019. It’s been years since either Jean or Stacey has heard from Sean, but after hearing that his mum has cancer he returns to see her. What we begin to learn very quickly is that this isn’t the case; he’s returned to make his peace with people and say his goodbyes. Sean can no longer cope with his life and he wants to end it.
The story reaches its climax with Sean being sat in a barn, gun in one hand and a bottle of scotch in the other, with Jean and Stacey both trying to talk him out of it. After Sean finally reveals the secret that he may have killed his father, Jean reveals a secret, too: his father wasn’t a good man as he’d been having an affair for years and had a whole other secret family. Sean had created a memory in his head that by hitting his father he had destroyed their perfect family, but Jean makes him realise their family was never perfect.
Just like that, Jean finds the main reason for Sean’s behaviour over the years—the reason he could never settle, the reason he doesn’t feel good enough for anyone, the reason he’s been so off the rails, the reason he can no longer live with himself. She tells him repeatedly, “you are good enough, Sean, you are good enough.” He asks for forgiveness, and even though Jean tells him she does, she also makes him realise that it’s more important that he should finally forgive himself and seek the help that he needs and deserves. He eventually hands over the gun and collapses in tears in Jean’s arms. He later leaves Albert Square to seek professional help at a mental health facility.
“You are good enough, Sean…”
The acting is so phenomenal between the three actors, and the scene plays out perfectly due to the beautiful writing. I can probably speak for a lot of people when I say there weren’t many dry eyes left by the end of the episode. People are given the hope that even though it feels like suicide is the only option left, if you dig deep enough and talk about what’s going on then maybe you can find the reasons to fight it. Fight these feelings for your family, fight them for your loved ones, fight them for your friends but, most of all, fight them for you. You deserve to be loved, you deserve help, and you deserve to live.
Talking to each other is a basic human function and something we do every day, whether it’s posting a status on Facebook, saying hello to the cashier at the store, saying good morning to a loved one, or everyday chit chat to colleagues at work. It may be a basic function, but it’s such a powerful tool. People still don’t realise how much of a huge impact reaching out to someone, to simply ask how they are, can have on their lives. Letting people know we care and that they aren’t alone is sometimes all it takes to save a life. It’s something we need to do more of and it’s something that goes both ways. Never ever be afraid or ashamed of speaking out and admitting that you’re struggling, that you need help, or that you just need someone to listen. We can’t suffer in silence any longer and we can’t leave other people to suffer either.
I’ve been on the edge of darkness, feeling like there was no other option left than to just end things, but you know what? I’m glad I didn’t succeed and I’m glad that I’m still here.