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TV Drama Ups its Game in Portraying Mental Health

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I've sat on the judging panel for the Mind Media Awards for four years now. It is one of the highlights of the year for me and a responsibility I am both proud of and take seriously.

What I particularly enjoy about the judging is that every entry on the shortlist gets a fair hearing. I think this is a key element to any jury. The whole process could probably be over in an hour if we simply put up our hands in support of which ever entries we enjoyed the most and just left it at that. It is in discussing the relative merits and shortcomings of each shortlisted entry that we form a decision on which we can all (mostly) agree on.

I would like to think that we always get the decision right for who should win each category but it truly is never easy. We have certain criteria which entries must meet. They need to have first hand testimony from someone suffering mental health problems or emotional distress. They must be challenging, avoiding stereotypes and sensationalism. It is of course imperative that they are well crafted, with high production values and they need to reach a significant audience.

It is a regular debate we have as to the trade off between reaching a wide range of viewers and providing challenging content. I remember on more than one occasion judging a brilliantly crafted programme but one that the broadcaster had decided to schedule late at night or out of the way of its peak audience. Equally there are some prime time shows that perhaps have their content watered down a little to satisfy all audiences. Obviously when a show is both hard hitting and appropriately scheduled it will invariably warrant itself a contender as is clear in some of the winning entries this year, unfortunately however this is not always the case.

On this year's drama shortlist it was impressive to find five great examples of this. All were fantastic programmes and each was scheduled at a time to maximise their potential audience. With the exception of Top Boy and to some extent Appropriate Adult the other three nominees had a mental health story line at their heart. This is not to suggest that a winner has to be entirely focused on a mental health issue, as Top Boy and Appropriate Adult were very sensitive and accurate in their brilliant portrayals.

Homeland, the category winner, could have fallen into a trap of over dramatising Bipolar disorder in its main character Carrie Mathison. Instead it conveyed an illness that is manageable though constantly present, it explained about her lithium medication and reflected accurate depressive and manic episodes. It also showed us the effect it had on her close family and friends. Carrie is shown as a high functioning sufferer who can still lead a normal professional and personal life. Aside from some previous EastEnders storylines it is difficult to think of another drama that has so successfully dealt with a mental health issue and managed to have it at its core.

If there is one plea I could make to all of the media companies it is please never underestimate the need for more mental health challenging content. With such a huge proportion of the population affected one way or another by mental health related issues, we need to reach out, educate and challenge the stigma attached to them. You as broadcasters, journalists, producers and writers are in the best possible position to help us do this. As the winners this year proved, you can have brilliantly produced, engaging content in a prime time slot.