Features

Can TV soaps save lives?

07 September 2018

Soap operas are a powerful vehicle for communicating public health messages. But do they really prompt viewers to recognise and seek treatment for their own conditions? Journalist Helen Bird reports.

Faith Shutterstock
Mark Eastenders
Shayne Ward Shutterstock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1992, 24.3 million people tuned in to watch Mark Fowler reveal he was HIV positive to his sister Michelle on EastEnders. It remains one of the most viewed episodes in UK television history.

This is the power of soap operas: they unite the UK public from the comfort of our own homes, allowing us to live vicariously through the characters and escape temporarily the grind of our own lives.

Yet soaps are also grounded in reality – perhaps more so than we realise – particularly in their portrayal of health issues.

And they are increasingly praised for the fact: a survey conducted by the charity Mind, for example, found that half of respondents who had seen a storyline involving a character with mental health problems said it had helped their understanding of the issues (Mind, 2016).

More recently, the character Aidan’s suicide in Coronation Street sent ripples of shock, sadness and support across social media, while EastEnders’ depiction of Stacey’s postpartum psychosis provided another highly effective means of publicising a little-known or understood mental health condition.

And despite an undeniable focus on mental health issues recently, soap scriptwriters have also brought widespread attention to a range of physical conditions: Faith’s breast cancer in Emmerdale, for instance, or Jack’s sepsis in Coronation Street.

 

Getting it right

But for programmes that are primarily designed to entertain, how accurate can these health storylines be? It seems that, more than ever, soap producers are committed to creating as realistic a depiction as possible, drafting in teams of medical experts to add precise detail to the scenes.

Dr Rob Hicks is one such expert. As medical script adviser to the BBC1 daytime soap Doctors since it began in 2000, he’s been consulted on countless health-related storylines. ‘Long gone are the days of trying to gain entertainment value and viewer numbers through scaremongering,’ he says. ‘My experience of programmes is that they’re all done incredibly responsibly – recognising that, yes, a programme needs to be entertaining – however, it also has to be accurate.’

Fellow script adviser and consultant forensic psychologist Dr Ruth Tully agrees. Her motivation for working with writers on dramatisations, she says, is to ensure her profession is portrayed as accurately as possible.

‘There are a lot of myths out there about forensic psychology, mental health and offenders, and it’s annoying when these myths are perpetuated through TV,’ she says. ‘While the drama might be just that – not seen in real life – if producers and writers get the setting and professional representations right through using expert advice, the [programme] can be as realistic and powerful as possible.’

 

Making waves?

Besides recruiting the best medical expertise to inform their scripts, how can soap writers be sure their small-screen portrayals are having the desired effect on audiences? One study suggested that soaps offer the chance to portray ‘healthy’ behaviours as normal, ‘and so help change attitudes and shape behavioural norms among the viewing public’ (Verma et al, 2007).

However, another claimed mental health storylines in particular focus on surface-level details and do not delve deep enough into the complexities of the illnesses being depicted on screen (Henderson, 2018).

Clare McIntyre, a health visitor and research nurse at Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool, believes the overall reach and impact of soaps should be celebrated. ‘When [storylines] are well researched and portrayed sensitively, and pitched at the right balance between fact and fiction, this can be extremely positive,’ she says. ‘I think it can often be more effective than targeted, government-funded campaigns because viewers can relate to characters in a soap.’

For Dr Ron Daniels, chief executive officer at the UK Sepsis Trust, who has worked extensively with the Coronation Street team on young Jack’s storyline, the audience’s response speaks for itself. ‘We’re already receiving anecdotal reports that this storyline alone has saved lives, because the most effective solution to this clinical problem is communication and awareness,’ he explains. ‘We’ve had feedback [from parents] saying: “Had I not seen this programme I might not have acted; my child’s fine.”

‘But it’s also come from health professionals – that they’re seeing appropriate, earlier presentation of children. We’ve seen calls to our support line go up by 450% since the storyline started, which establishes that there was a real need out there for people to be aware of sepsis and to be able to seek advice.’

‘Soaps can often be more effective than targeted, government-funded campaigns because viewers can relate to characters'

 

Faith Shutterstock
Under the microscope

The remarkable increase in helpline calls to which Dr Daniels refers serves to highlight the reach that soaps can have, when perhaps a public health campaign may not have proved as effective. It’s a phenomenon that’s been seen previously: a study investigating the impact of EastEnders’ postpartum psychosis storyline, which ran in 2016, observed that public exposure provided by the portrayal ‘was deemed highly valuable’, noting that support charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis had seen its daily website visits double from 400 to 800, with a fourfold increase in registrations for email peer support after the story aired (Roberts et al, 2018).

But are such reactions merely born out of viewers’ heightened anxiety around a particular health issue? One study, which looked into a spike in the number of smear tests taken in Manchester after the death of Coronation Street’s Alma from cervical cancer, suggests so. ‘Television influenced screening behaviour but it must be of concern to health promoters that this was done through the generation of anxiety,’ the authors concluded (Richardson et al, 2002).

But surely it is not only thoughts about our own health and that of our loved ones that can be affected by soap depictions – our perceptions of others are often influenced too, argues Ruth.

‘If, for example, a condition is described or acted out in one way and the public don’t have experience of it, often they may assume this is accurate or a “typical” presentation of the condition,’ she explains. ‘Where someone with a mental health condition is violent, the public might wrongly assume that all people with that diagnosis are violent.

‘This could result in stereotyping, which can really stigmatise people,’ Ruth adds. ‘Writers and producers are rightly looking to experts to help them avoid this.’

 

Starting conversations

Just as powerful soap storylines have the ability to prompt discussions among friends, colleagues and even relative strangers on social media, they can also be used effectively in healthcare practice.

A study that investigated the role of television in perpetuating fearful thoughts about childbirth among women suggested that midwives should take a more active role in educating the public and the media (Hundley et al, 2015).

Clare agrees that professionals could benefit from being more media-savvy in their practice, particularly when working with young people and new mothers.

‘Subjects such as postnatal depression, breastfeeding support and sexual health or contraception may be more likely to be broached in conversation when using a soap character,’ she says. ‘It may also make it easier for public health nurses to initiate 
the conversation using the soaps to encourage a discussion.’

It’s a natural opportunity to reassure people that they’re not alone, Rob adds. ‘Sometimes it’s being able to say: “Did you see Doctors the other day, where the mum was suffering with postnatal depression?” and just coming up with a line to say: “You know it’s incredibly common, don’t you?” to a new mum.’ It can reassure her that ‘it’s okay for her to ask for help rather than having to bury it and suffer.’

 

Keeping up momentum
Jack Shutterstock

For soap viewers, the public health message that runs at the end of episodes featuring a health-related storyline is a familiar sight. ‘If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in tonight’s episode…’ the announcer usually says, followed by details of the relevant helpline or support group. Community practitioners have the opportunity to deliver similar information in their conversations with families and young people, forming an important extension of the drive to raise public awareness that there is support out there.

‘I know that sometimes these shows might cause others in healthcare to groan as it may increase workload,’ says Rob. ‘But my philosophy is that by providing up-to-date and accurate information, [soaps are] not only giving viewers permission to 
consult about their health, but also giving them important information that they can share with their healthcare practitioners, which helps everybody.’
 

Watch you health soap facts

Useful helplines covered

  • Mind Infoline: 0300 123 3393 or text 86463
  • UK Sepsis Trust: 0808 800 0029
  • Action on Postpartum Psychosis: 020 3322 9900
  • Terrence Higgins Trust: 0808 802 1221
  • Samaritans: 116 123

Picture Credit | Alarmy/ iStock/ Rex
 


 

References

Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board. (2018) Weekly top 30 programmes. See: barb.co.uk/viewing-data/weekly-top-30 (accessed 7 August 2018).

Henderson L. (2018) Popular television and public mental health: creating media entertainment from mental distress. Critical Public Health 28(1): 106-17. 

Hundley V, van Teijlingen E, Luce A. (2015) Do midwives need to be more media savvy? MIDIRS Midwifery Digest 25(1): 5-10. 

Mind. (2016) Soap characters and news readers can save lives: people with mental health problems seek help following media coverage. See: mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/soap-characters-and-news-readers-can-save-lives-people-with-mental-health-problems-seek-help-following-media-coverage/#.W19s9y2ZMdU (accessed 7 August 2018).

Richardson J, Owen-Smith V, Howe A. (2002) The effect of ‘Alma’s’ death on women attending for a cervical smear: a questionnaire survey. Journal of Public Health 24(4): 305-6. 

Roberts L, Berrisford G, Heron J, Jones L, Jones I, Dolman C, Lane DA. (2018) Qualitative exploration of the effect of a television soap opera storyline on women with experience of postpartum psychosis. BJPsych Open 4: 75-82.

Verma T, Adams J, White M. (2007) Portrayal of health-related behaviours in popular UK television soap operas. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 61(7): 575-7. 

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