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I'm An Anti-Stigma Campaigner, But We Shouldn't Let Mental Illness Off Lightly

07/08/2017 16:51
BBC

There was talk among the Twitter community about EastEnders' latest mental health storyline. They've been praised in the past for sensitive portrayals, but I saw a few people angered by what they believed was a 'stereotype' when character Lisa Fowler suffered a breakdown after she stopped taking her medication.

The character, played by Lucy Benjamin, was seen talking to herself and putting her daughter at risk by taking her out of hospital. Some Twitter users called the show out for stigma, but I think our idea of stigma has become a little clouded...

Of course, I may still be raising a complaint to Points of View depending on how the story plays out. And I'm very happy to be challenged on this view - you might even change my mind.

But for me, I believe that mental illness can be scary and destructive. We shouldn't shy away from that. It's the people who shouldn't be portrayed in that way. So if Lisa's return to the square was simply as a mental illness sufferer who causes chaos, puts her child's life in danger, then disappears, that's not doing us any favours.

If, however, we see empathy, recovery and love surrounding the character, then I'm not sure it's necessarily been all bad. And after all, Lisa didn't appear to have any intention of hurting her daughter. But her confused state did put her daughter in danger.

Disclaimer here, I haven't personally suffered with psychotic symptoms. But I've seen such symptoms first hand with friends when I was growing up and through my work with Home Group - a charity with mental health services up and down the country. And people can and do sometimes suffer with delusions and hallucinations. And, on occasion, some people might appear to be talking to themselves. That's when symptoms are apparent. But symptoms are transient, and in no way do they form somebody's personality.

So it's all about context. And we need to remember that other illnesses can present in this way too. Maybe this is where we need to get the balance right.

I have an anxiety disorder. I have found myself frantically pacing the front room, wringing my hands and repeating words over and over mid panic. Just two weekends ago, I found myself repeating a phrase over and over whilst I was driving down the A1 convinced I was close to passing out and crashing the car. If anybody had seen me out of context, I could well have unnerved them!

Moving away from mental illness as a cause altogether, as a child, my sister had a fever that resulted in delirium. This returned when she was a little older after she was hit by a car. She was talking about some strange things at the time (apples were raining from the sky!) and was very confused. Symptoms of mental illness can be very similar to symptoms of physical illness and trauma.

If we continue to avoid depicting the devastating experiences that people can endure at the hands of mental illness, are we really doing anything to help our fight for parity? Yes, people with mental illness shouldn't be depicted as miserable or scary. But the symptoms of mental illness can be miserable and scary. If we just play it down, aren't we giving people like Piers Morgan more ammunition to call us whiny, needy, twerps? Aren't we perpetuating the idea that anyone can be a 'bit OCD' or that being nervous before a presentation is the same as having an anxiety disorder?

Mental illness is very real. It can be debilitating and frightening and those suffering absolutely deserve the same levels of support that those with physical illnesses receive. Because it is important.

So before I raise a complaint to Points of View I'll watch with interest tonight to see where the story goes. And perhaps something else that soaps and dramas should be encouraged to show is the physical reasons that people can present with these 'stereotypical' mental health symptoms. Somebody with the flu and a sky high fever experiencing hallucinations, somebody whose manic state is due to hyperthyroidism perhaps?

We absolutely need more context and balance. But in the meantime, we also need to remind people of the devastating impact of mental illness in order to continue to fight for the funding and services we need.

So, EastEnders, do we get to know Lisa the loving mum, or do we simply wave goodbye to Lisa the crazy person? I guess I'll tune in to find out....please do us proud!

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