How is a British Soap Representing Mental Health Better than Global Shows?

The answer is always research.

It’s not often a British soap gets talked about in terms of powerful millennial representation but Coronation Street isn’t pulling its punches right now. The long-running British soap is starting to get more and more popular with millennials because of the way its approaching mental health. Social media keeps being filled with its different plots and its difficult not to notice. In fact, it’s doing so well with younger audiences that older people are often commenting on any Facebook status they can that the show is too miserable and dealing with too many issues. That is the millennial influence we can be proud of.

It was with scepticism that Coronation Street was put on this week. It’s a show that has always been around and will likely always be around. Different generations have actually grown up with it. It’s ubiquitous in British culture which means that it often gets ignored by as many people as it gets watched by. British soaps are generally just TV you can count on if there’s nothing else on and you don’t have a plan for the evening. The shouting, the quips, the utter hysteria, the OTT plot-lines and the weird obsession with hot-pots is enough to mildly amuse for a half hour – which is why it’s so surprising that Coronation Street has just nailed a story on mental health.

There are a lot of shows discussing or depicting people struggling with their mental health – often these have global platforms and yet, they still aren’t doing a good enough job. 13 Reasons Why depicted suicide as a malicious act and was so shocking in how it represented mental health, audiences felt that their own mental health had been triggered by watching the show. There were even charities and parents warning about the downside of this series that has earned so much praise.

“There are a lot of shows discussing or depicting people struggling with their mental health right now – often these have global platforms and yet they still aren’t doing a good enough job”

Another show that got it completely wrong at times was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. While it’s refreshing to have borderline personality disorder actually talked about, the main character’s toxic behaviour often is made light of – but, still, worse than that was the horrific depiction of how Rebecca attempted suicide. There were many potentially triggering elements to seeing the act and even witnessing Rebecca’s search of the most pain free ways to commit suicide. This is a horrendous portrayal as there is a very real risk that this gives people ideas or prompts copy-cat behaviour in people who are incredibly vulnerable.

Aidan Connor’s suicide wasn’t used for shock and awe though. There was a slow build up, where Aidan clearly planned by saying goodbye but there were no shots of his body, no last minute savings or heroics just for shock and there was no discussion of the method. The focus was on his behaviour leading up to the event, of how he had become a shell of his former self but still people didn’t notice. The emphasis now is on the reaction of those who knew him, what is appropriate to say, what isn’t and on getting the conversations right.

There was nothing disingenuous, there was nothing to drive shocking moments; it was a quiet journey of depression and the ramifications of when a society that doesn’t do enough to tackle mental ill health.

“It was a quiet journey of depression and the ramifications of when a society that doesn’t do enough to tackle mental ill health”

The reason why Coronation Street got it so, so right was because of the amount of research that clearly went into the story. The soap has put forefront ways in which people can contact support if they feel they need it, they’ve worked with appropriate bodies to get not just the script right but the scenes depicted well. They’ve centred the responsibility to the audience more than they have the desire for ratings. Perhaps this could only happen in Britain. We have strict guidelines about what should and shouldn’t be shown when it comes to suicide, and charities are always very vocal about what is needed or isn’t. Sometimes these are flouted by programme makers, but there are resources so that our different series can get it right when they want to – and Coronation Street has shown a tremendous commitment to getting it right.

Global shows should be paying attention to British shows right now, or at least British charities if they truly want to get mental health portrayals right. Yes, a lot of shows have started conversations around mental health but what good are they if they are triggering the very audience they claim to want to empower? Coronation Street has shown depression, mental ill health and suicide can be represented in a way that is both respectful but also powerful. We don’t need the shocking moments, we have enough of them already. We need responsibility with representation and we need it now.

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