I started to write this as a series of tweets, but the length was getting silly, so I have decided to use my blog. This isn’t likely to happen often, so the focus will return to theatre, fear not. However, I was surprised at how much I wanted to say in response to this Holby City episode. It was announced a couple of weeks ago that the character of Sacha, a much loved doctor, was going to be the centre of an episode on mental health, and the audience would see his struggle with depression. My initial reaction (as expressed on my twitter account) was it was great that this was being covered. I have had problems with anxiety and panic attacks in the past, but that was clearly linked to a chronic bowel condition I have been living with for over 20 years, and I had support to help me through linked to that. So I don’t think it was this that provoked my reaction. Although, there is the case of how prominent Crohn’s was in this episode for me to process too (I haven’t got Crohn’s, but my condition is bowel related), so…
What hit more is that I have recent experience of two men I love dearly going through severe mental health crises, to the point that I consider us very lucky that they are still here. I am not going into any further detail, as they are not my stories to tell, but I did want to give my input as one of those family members or friends that help to deal with the struggles. And my second thought, after that initial reaction, was that I hoped the team behind the story had a good handle on their responsibility in using mental health as the centre of a story-line; that it is a massively important issue and shouldn’t be used cynically as a way of getting better viewing figures.
I am not naive. I know that a television serial is concerned primarily with its ratings, with keeping on screen, and ensuring enough story-lines are attention-grabbing enough to gain viewers. I do think they have a responsibility to do so in a way that doesn’t exploit marginalised or vulnerable groups though. It is an issue that has also raised its head, in relation to Holby City in the past couple of years, with its promotion of itself as pro-representation with the relationships of Serena and Bernie, and Dom and Lofty, and also the intersex character of Han. I’m not going into that here, but I would point you in the direction of this tweet that sums it up better than I can. I have said it is refreshing to have such characters being happy and facing challenges that don’t end tragically (hoping I have represented the views of my friends who are part of the LGBTQ+ community accurately with this) and I hope that continues on the show for a long time to come. Anyway, I digress…
As I said, I have recent experience of being one of those family members or friends that people turn to when they have a mental health crisis. Even as an information professional, I found it difficult to know where to go for the most appropriate advice, especially in such an emotionally-charged situation. Mental health services in England are severely under-funded, to say the least. Emergency care is often left to paramedics, or increasingly the police, and then where you go from there is muddled. Charity input is vital at this point, and I was relieved to see that Mind had been heavily involved with the production of the story, and its promotion.
I tuned in to BBC Breakfast on Monday 27th August to see the actor who plays Sacha, Bob Barrett, being interviewed to promote the episode. He was with a representative of Mind, as well as a paramedic who had been through a mental health crisis. The presenters were very good at pointing out how important it is to have these stories played out in popular drama, as was the Mind representative, as it helps people recognise and pinpoint their own issues. This could indeed save lives. However, when it came to giving advice to those in a position to potentially help…nothing. The presenter referred to a helpline, but the details didn’t appear on the screen. A quick note to viewers to go to the BBC website didn’t exactly give directed advice. I felt a vital part of the support here was missing.
Likewise, Bob and Hugh Quarshie (who plays Ric Griffin) appeared on The One Show just before the episode went out. The presenters made no reference to what should be done once someone opens up. Indeed it was Bob who insisted on saying that charities such as Mind and The Samaritans can offer support in this – he did a great job getting that in.
The episode itself was powerful and represented well the long-term effects of depression. How it can be hidden, how it affects everything, how others misunderstand the signals, how it can recur at any point. I thank the writers and actors for getting that across – there really is no quick fix. And oh good grief, Bob Barrett broke my heart. I hope this isn’t the end of the story-line though.
Another friend broke their arm badly at a similar time to one of the mental health crises happening, just over a year ago. She had emergency care, follow-up outpatient appointments, physiotherapy, and a detailed plan of exercises to follow, in order to get the limb back into as healthy a shape as possible. All of this was offered from the local hospital. She still hasn’t regained full strength, but it has definitely recovered well. This is in sharp contrast to the muddled follow-up offered for mental health. Trying to access the various options in terms of medication and counselling therapies, and figuring out what needed to be done, was a minefield, took a lot of time (and money), and all of this whilst trying to ensure that people were safe.
I am not sure what I am trying to achieve with this ramble. It really is a ramble and a reaction to emotions I didn’t realise were bubbling until I saw the first advert for this episode. And even as I type I am not sure if I will publish it. But I guess what I am trying to say is that I am really glad that this is being tackled in one of my favourite shows, but it very much needs to be done in the context of the wider issues, otherwise it is just cynical viewer-grabbing. I am all in favour of the message that talking about mental health problems is a key way of ensuring they are tackled. However, that is only the start of a very long process. And it would be really great if the drama reflected that and the surrounding advertising promoted the services available for all those affected.
I don’t say I look forward to seeing how the story progresses; that doesn’t seem right. What I do hope is that it doesn’t go away. That we see how it plays out long-term. And that we see that opening up is only the beginning. There needs to be consideration of the lack of funding for mental health services when story-lines like this are promoted so heavily. It isn’t reflecting reality if it isn’t there.
There was an action line for more info at the end of the episode, so that was something.
Edit – I have checked the Holby City Twitter and Instagram accounts, and they both put out lots of help info. That obviously doesn’t address the issue of long term help, but it is much better than the pre-programme advertising on the other shows I mentioned.
Mind – https://www.mind.org.uk/
Samaritans – https://www.samaritans.org/