TV dramas unhelpful and misleading portrayal of mental illness

I was interested to see a piece in ‘Therapy Today’, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s professional journal, yesterday complaining about the way fictional characters with mental health problems are portrayed on television.  Having just seen the second part of BBC’s ‘Silent Witness’ a couple of nights before, I was already fuming about this very topic!

Did any of you see it?  If you did, you will know that the subject of depression was fairly central to the storyline and the use of SSRI’s (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors is the name given to a group of antidepressant medicines) in particular was featured heavily.  What annoyed me was the link that was made between the use of these drugs, commonly prescribed to people suffering from depression or anxiety, and extremely violent behaviour.  Many people could have got the impression that taking SSRI medication was a very dangerous thing for them, or a loved one, to do and this may well have made people stop taking such medication if they were already using it, or prevent them from starting to take it in the first place.  Indeed Nicky, the pathologist in the programme who was diagnosed with depression in this episode, is shown to choose not to take the SSRI she has been prescribed and the implication is that her decision has been influenced by the behaviour of another character in the storyline who had taken SSRI’s and murdered several people.

While all medication carries the risk of side effects, I felt the way ‘Silent Witness’ exaggerated this link was completely irresponsible and misleading, and further fuelled the stigma associated with any mental health issues.  A report by Shift, the campaign t0 tackle this stigma, says 45% of fictional characters suffering from mental health problems are depicted as violent or as posing a threat to the safety of others (e.g. Stacey Branning in East Enders).  Furthermore, 63% of references in TV soaps and dramas to people with mental health problems were ‘pejorative, flippant or unsympathetic’.

I do hope there will soon come a time when this sensationalist and insensitive treatment of the subject of mental health is replaced by a more positive, balanced, realistic and factually accurate representation.

(Making a Drama Out of a Crisis – Shift –

You can help fight the stigma associated with mental health problems by supporting organisations such as:

Stamp Out Stigma, Bring Change to Mind,  Time to Change

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