Over the course of the past 8 months, I have followed Hollyoaks‘ #dontfilterfeelings campaign. Hollyoaks is a popular teenage soap set in the North of England, and this campaign works to raise awareness surrounding mental health and its impact on the younger generation of today. It has featured two central storylines so far, the first implicating suicide and the second self-harm. The program currently depicts character Cleo McQueen‘s battle with bulimia. For this campaign Hollyoaks has received a hugely positive public response, including winning an award at the 2017 Virgin Media Money Giving Mind Media Awards for Scott Drinkwell’s suicide storyline.
As viewers, however, it is important that our reaction is not to passively accept the portrayal that Hollyoaks has given us. We need instead to engage in a wider conversation about mental health and to put into practice the show’s recurring hashtag. So … let’s talk about mental health.
Scott Drinkwell (played by Ross Adams) is a young, gay character who first appeared in Hollyoaks in April 2015. Scott’s moving storyline began in June last year. As a quirky someone who didn’t seem to portray negative emotion or engage in confrontation, he quickly became the butt of jokes and a source of fun for other characters.
He additionally faced a series of narrative challenges including being disowned by his biological mother and then set up by a supposed romantic interest. When an MS awareness event that he was involved in backfired, he made the decision to try to take his own life. Scott’s survival, however, wasn’t miraculously synonymous with his recovery. His initial reaction was to continue to mask his feelings and try to convince everyone that his actions were for attention. Fortunately, with encouragement from another character, Scott was finally able to open up. Although difficult, eventually the family were able to face up to the reality of mental illness. Scott, in particular, is currently shown to live up to the message of the now infamous Hollyoaks hashtag #dontfilterfeelings, as he learns to speak about the battles he previously faced alone.
Lily Drinkwell (Lauren McQueen) is the second primary character to become involved in the campaign. Like Scott, she began her downwards spiral as a confident character. Following the death of her mum, her character’s storyline involves her being caught cheating for an exam, being told that scars she gained from a car crash would likely never fade, and dealing with her own emotions regarding Scott’s storyline. Lily ends up resorting to self-harm as a coping mechanism. Hollyoaks takes the situation even further when Lily’s friends become involved and create a ‘self-harm pact’ whereby we see the danger of the influence young people have over each other, whether used intentionally or not.
The Relevance of Hollyoaks to Real Life
According to the LGBT foundation, suicide has become the biggest killer of young men in the UK. Those who identify as LGBT are also 3 times more likely to resort to suicide than heterosexual people. Meanwhile, in the period 2015/2016, the NSPCC conducted a total of 18,471 counselling sessions surrounding the issue of self-harm. According to the spokesperson for the London-based charity Mind, over a quarter of women aged 16-24 have self-harmed at some moment during their life. The #dontfilterfeelings campaign works as a two-way street: firstly, by encouraging sufferers of mental illness to open up and talk about what they are going through, and secondly, by trying to ensure that someone is always there and ready to listen. Awareness is the first step, understanding and acting the second.
Whilst there have recently been hugely positive movements for mental health awareness, it is necessary to take a step back and consider the wider implications of representations such as those given by Hollyoaks. This is due more specifically to the genre itself, as opposed to issues with the script or the actors’ portrayal.
A soap, as a genre, follows the ‘daily lives’ of its characters who somewhat paradoxically don’t have ‘daily lives’ as we know them. In between car crash, hospital fire and a psychotic murderer knocking at the door, the average viewer can breathe a sigh of relief that ‘hey maybe our problems aren’t so bad after all’. Whilst, unfortunately, these are all things that do occur to real people in real life, the frequency with which they happen on screen is unlikely (although not impossible), but more importantly, it is an incredibly specific situation that is portrayed. The problem, then, with linking mental health with such situations is that it encourages the belief that traumatic events, and traumatic events only, are the explanation of mental health problems.
What is important to note about mental health issues like depression and self-harm is that, whether provoked by external traumatic events or not, it is fundamentally something inside, something internal, which is the problem. Sufferers do not need the experience of a traumatic event to validate what they are feeling. Additionally, what is perhaps most important is the fact that treating the external cause does not always cure the internal illness. Resolving the money issues of the parent does not necessarily take away the depression of the child.
That said, Hollyoaks has worked very closely with charities Mind, The Samaritans and The Mix, as well as several experts on their simultaneous storylines. All of the latter were asked to approve the scripts before filming began. Throughout this article I have tried, not to undermine the valuable and positive impact Hollyoaks have worked to achieve, but rather to draw attention to the nuances of mental health. Ultimately, we end up with the question of whether mental illness is something that can ever truly be efficiently represented, when the majority of sufferers themselves struggle to put their feelings into words.
To find out more about mental health and how you might be able to help, head to www.mind.org.uk/