Wednesday, November 24, 2010

UK report: Television dramas too often portray characters with mental health problems as "dangerous"

From The Guardian in the UK:

Television dramas too often portray characters with mental health problems as "dangerous", according to a study of peak-time programmes.

Almost half (45%) of fictional characters with mental illness have storylines depicting them as violent or posing a threat to others, says a report by Shift, the campaign to tackle the stigma associated with mental issues.

In addition 63% of references to mental health in TV soaps and drama were "pejorative, flippant or unsympathetic". Terms included: "crackpot", "a sad little psycho", "basket case" , "where did you get her from, Care in the Community?" and "he was looney tunes".

The study, by the Glasgow Media Group, examined three months of drama programmes on British terrestrial channels between 4pm and 11pm from 1 January this year. It found 74 episodes from 34 different programmes contained mental illness-related story lines.Of those story lines, there were 33 instances of violence towards others, including a character in Channel 4's Shameless attacking her partner, and an escaped schizophrenic patient in Channel 5's CSI:NY killing people to avenge his girlfriend's murder.

There were also 48 instances of additional types of harm, including the Emmerdale character Sally Spode drugging and sleeping with a vicar to break up his family. Some 53 instances of self-harm were also recorded.

"Some of this study suggests that mental illness is still used as an easy source of violent tragedy or as something to poke fun at," said the report, called Making a Drama out of a Crisis .

"Mad and Bad is still alive and well on television, whether it is 'Psycho Sally' in Emmerdale or the sight of Chandler in Friends (pictured) announcing: 'Ding dong the psycho's gone.'"

Acknowledging programme makers were challenged in balancing accurate depictions of mental illness with the need to provide compelling television, the report stresses the need for more "everyday reality" rather than "axe-wielding maniac".

"Fictional film characters like Hitchcock's Norman Bates in Psycho have long established the idea of the 'mentally-ill' as crazed and dangerous in the public mind. Television has been doing the same thing for decades," said Professor Greg Philo, report author and director of the Glasgow Media Group.

"Of course, the reality is that the vast majority of people with mental health problems are not violent.

"But even soaps commended for raising awareness of mental health ill-health, such as EastEnders' character Stacey Branning's struggle with bipolar disorder, end in violence – she murders Queen Vic landlord Archie Mitchell."John Yorke, BBC controller of drama, told researchers the impact of Angie Watts's attempted suicide in EastEnders more than 20 years ago, which led to criticism over fears of copycat suicides, provided a "cataclysmic change" in the industry over the potential effects of drama on viewers. It was a "big wake up call".

The study noted increased use of telephone helplines or websites after episodes that featured mental health. One example was the peak in hits to the Manic Depression Fellowship website which matched the story twists in EastEnders high profile bipolar disorder story.And TV drama had the power to challenge "stigma and prejudice", said the report, published ahead of Monday night's Mind Mental Health Media Awards.

Chief executive of mental health charity Mind, Paul Farmer, said progress had been made in recent years, highlighting EastEnders, Shameless and Doctors as among those demonstrating a commitment to developing "realistic, sensitive and dramatic story lines". "It is also clear, however, that there is still much work to be done until we are at a stage where accurate depictions are the norm rather than the exception," said Farmer.