House of Commons proceedings this morning included the second reading of the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill and an important debate it was too.
The government hopes to significantly increase access to mental health therapies by 2015 - and I certainly think that's crucial if we're going to make life more fulfilling and less miserable for so many suffering from a psychological illness along with making the whole subject of mental illness less taboo. Many MPs spoke of their own experiences or of those of people close to them and at a time when there is still a lot of stigma around mental illness this takes courage so I admire them for that.
Some commented that the media had played a positive role in getting the subject of mental health into the public arena, and dramas and soap operas were praised for this.
But as a mental health professional I think it's unfortunate that so many of the big stories which involve characters suffering from mental illness, portray sufferers in a predominantly negative way, with little opportunity for the viewer to feel any empathy, and it could be argued these storylines certainly don't help the public's perception of mental health problems and how they manifest themselves.
These messages - positive and negative - seep into the unconscious completely unchallenged as viewers are sitting there with their cuppa and packet of chocolate digestives, and script writers should be aware of that. For some, the only information they ever really get about something like depression will be a storyline on Eastenders so programme makers should have a responsibility to portray characters and their situations fairly.
Unfortunately it's the big shocking episodes that are guaranteed high ratings though. Here are a few storylines from Coronations Street over the past few years, and my view of how they portrayed mental illness...
Claire Peacock suffered a harrowing experience of Postnatal Depression which could have encouraged the audience to empathise with her pain. But the character went on to abduct someone else's child; a huge number of women suffer from PND but only a tiny number pose any risk to anyone.
Peter Barlow has struggled with alcohol dependence for years and the character has to some degree been portrayed as really quite vulnerable and desperate. But he's also seen as selfish a lot of the time and unable to care for his young son, whose life he put at risk when a fire broke out at his flat when he was drunk.
John Stape started out as an apparently charming English teacher who seemed to spend his spare time pondering poetry. But an episode of depression led him into a cycle of identity theft, kidnapping and murder which again, reinforces the idea that depression is synonymous with danger.
Joe McIntyre was a middleaged man who developed an addiction to prescription painkillers, which we know is a growing problem. Again, he was portrayed with some sensitivity at first but then his life began spiraling out of control as he had to deal with loan sharks, drug dealers and attempted fraud, all leading to his eventual death.
As I say, I appreciate TV dramas want high ratings, but I would have thought within the realm of soap operas there would be some scope to explore mental health problems in a way which was more realistic and less likely to endorse the public perception that people who struggle with mental illness are best avoided.
One of the earliest soap storylines which tackled this difficult area appeared on Eastenders in the late 90s. Joe Wicks was a teenager who suffered from schizophrenia, but his situation was portrayed in a way which was very sympathetic to the character and the agony his family went through in trying to cope with his condition. Played by a young Paul Nicholls, Joe was a very attractive teenage lad, someone lots of viewers would have fancied and related to I'm sure. The focus was on the character's internal nightmare, the paranoia, voices and hallucinations and the way that isolated him from the people who cared about him. Back in 1996 this was groundbreaking stuff.
We need more stories which convey how difficult it can be to cope with a mental health problem, accessing support is sometimes not easy, not everyone who works in mental healthcare is as well trained and enlightened as they should be.
Changing laws is obviously a huge step forward, but that by itself will not change the public perception of mental illness nor encourage people to talk about their own experiences. In many ways, popular TV shows have a lot more power than debates in the Commons; we need to work together to break down the stigma associated with these conditions and progress towards a more compassionate, educated society.
You can watch the full Private Members' debate here: