Mental health was once taboo for much of the TV schedule. Now even CBeebies is tackling the subject, discovers Sanya Burgess.
Bipolar disorder and coping with death are two topics not usually associated with children’s television. Broadcasters, however, have woken up to their responsibility to tackle mental-health issues, and even kids’ television is rising to the challenge.
Cheryl Taylor, controller of CBBC, which caters for children aged 6-12, believes that social media has reinforced the need for mental-health lessons because many children lie about their age to create social-media profiles long before they turn 13.
“We take [mental health] very seriously and we are always looking for ways to reflect the world that kids are in,” she says.
CBBC shows such as My Life, Newsround and The Dumping Ground have tackled issues ranging from living with autism to having anger problems and being bullied. They have also looked at children coping with parents suffering from bipolar disorder or grandparents who have Alzheimer’s.
One indication of children’s pressing need for information and support is the dramatic rise in self-harming over the past decade: the number of girls treated as inpatients after cutting themselves has risen by 285% since 2005, according to NHS figures.
“If we can talk about it and normalise it and give people the words and language to start discussing it with their friends and family, I think that’s a really good and positive thing.”
CBeebies, CBBC’s preschool sister channel, has also engaged in improving mental-health awareness. “At CBeebies, we’re all about creating happy, confident and resilient children – the adults of the future – and our hope is that every child will see something of their lives reflected in our content,” says the channel’s controller, Kay Benbow.
CBeebies has moved into drama and observational documentary in recent years. One of its shows, the Bafta-winning Topsy and Tim, confronted the topic of death when the family’s pet dog passed away.
Another, the upcoming series Apple Tree House, set on an urban estate, deals with moving house and other potentially stressful childhood situations.
“It’s very empowering for children,” argues Benbow. “It may not be something they experience, but they can relate to it because it’s in a family situation. They can see how it was dealt with and that’s incredibly helpful.” She adds that a series focusing on feelings is in the pipeline.
Mental health is a sensitive and difficult subject: Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why attracted headlines around the world earlier this year for its controversial portrayal of teenage depression, including a graphic suicide scene.
Applauded by Generation Z and Millennials for dealing frankly with the crisis in youth mental health, it was criticised by some health experts and schools as an irresponsible glorification of suicide.
A Netflix spokesman defended the show, arguing that 13 Reasons Why opened up a dialogue and that Netflix “worked with mental-health experts to show how these issues impact teens in real and dramatic ways”.
The streaming service gave the show an 18 rating, added explicit warnings and made information resources available to viewers.
However, Lorna Fraser, a media advisor for the mental-health charity Samaritans, counters that “young people are far more at risk.… They are a very vulnerable audience when you’re dealing with the topic of suicide.
“Their behaviour is much more spontaneous and they don’t yet have that full emotional maturity to understand that you can actually work through your problems and come out the other end. Also – believe it or not – young people don’t actually appreciate the permanency of suicide.
“Significant research has been carried out across the world over the past five decades that links a certain type of depiction of suicide and an increase in suicide rates…. They are suicides that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”
Earlier this month, Channel 4’s Hollyoaks began a storyline following Scott, a gregarious and camp character who had been hiding increasing feelings of depression following a number of difficult events in his life.
He attempts suicide but survives. The storyline follows Scott’s long journey of trying to improve his mental health, as well as exploring the impact of the suicide attempt on family members. Keenly aware of the risks of broadcasting a suicide narrative, every line of these episodes was approved by Mind and Samaritans for viewer safety.
Later this year, Hollyoaks will also introduce the story of a schoolgirl beginning to self-harm. “If we can talk about it and normalise it and give people the words and language to start discussing it with their friends and family, I think that’s a really good and positive thing,” says Kevin Rundle, the story consultant. He has been contacted by viewers in the past who have gained the courage to seek help after connecting with a Hollyoaks storyline.
A survey by Mind last year found that 25% of respondents who already had mental-health problems were prompted to seek help by TV storylines involving a character with a mental-health problem.
“I wept and wept and wept watching 13 Reasons Why.”
TV content with these themes is not restricted to younger viewers. ITV’s Broadchurch attracted an audience of 8.4 million for the apparent suicide of the character Mark Latimer, at the end of a long storyline of grief and depression following the loss of his son. And more than 5.9 million people watched the first episode of The A Word, a BBC drama that followed a family who learnt how to adapt when the son was diagnosed with autism. In April, 1 million people watched Rory Bremner speak openly about his experience of having ADHD for BBC’s Horizon.
Upcoming programmes include Netflix’s film To the Bone (about an anorexic woman), Channel 4 and Netflix’s series Kiss Me First (which deals with suicide and internet addiction) and the BBC and ITV documentaries on Diana, Princess of Wales this summer. The last two will feature princes William and Harry opening up about their grief over their mother’s sudden death.
The BBC commissioned a season on mental health this year, including a comedic documentary Happy Man, which explored male identity, mental health and body image. “I guess I was just really bored by the mainstream mental-health conversation so far on TV,” says Jack Rooke, 23, the comedian and campaigner who presented the programme.
He adds: “As a long-term ambassador for mental-health charity CALM, and as someone who has lost a friend to depression, I just felt that everything I watched about mental health was saturated with calls for people to open up and talk and that was as far as the conversation went.
“Sadly, in some areas of this country there isn’t the infrastructure for people to easily access talking therapies and counsellors without having to wait months for help.
“I wanted to make something that was inspired by other solutions, outside of talking and outside of the NHS, that young men, in particular, can start doing to improve their well-being – and not increase the number of suicides. It is the single biggest killer of young men.”
One in four people in the UK experience a mental-health problem at some point in their lives. Ana Brenikov, 25, a Londoner who has lived with anxiety throughout her twenties, says that broadcasters have made an impact on her life by tackling these difficult issues.
“I wept and wept and wept watching 13 Reasons Why,” she says. “I didn’t cry just because it moved me, but watching someone hurting when you’re hurting inside yourself can help.
“My friends were all speaking about the show, and that discussion gave me a platform to share my experiences.”
Her history is not an isolated one and it is important that broadcasters maintain this momentum if they are to contribute to tackling this crisis.