Coronation Street: A Case Study in Media Portrayals of Suicide

Content Warning: This blog post will include discussions of suicide.

If you’re half as much of a soap opera fan as I’ve (secretly) become recently, you’ll have seen Coronation Street’s recent storyline involving the death of Aidan Connor by suicide.

While watching this episode, I was struck by how sensitive Coronation Street’s portrayal of Aidan’s suicide was. It’s for this reason that I wanted to write a blog post about this episode, its impact and why storylines such as this one are so important.

Who is Aidan Connor and why is he at the centre of this storyline?

Image result for aidan connor

Aidan Connor was 35-year-old Underworld factory owner, making him a boss to many and a friend to many more within the soap.

Although 2018 had proven to be a difficult year for Aidan, it seemed as though his life was beginning to get back on track – especially with the re-opening of his factory. So, why was he chosen for this storyline? I’ll let CEO of CALM, Simon Gunning, explain:

 

 

Image Credit

To ensure that this storyline was covered sensitively and responsibly, the producers of Coronation Street approached The Samaritans for help – a charity who provides emotional support for those at risk. In 2013, The Samaritans produced a 20-page set of guidelines to help media organisations discuss mental health in the public domain. These guidelines explore the importance of not making any reference to the method of suicide or suicide note, and to emphasise the impact that death by suicide can have on the family left behind.
And, as Lorna Fraser – media advisor at The Samaritans – explains, this was guidance that Coronation Street really took to heart.

So, what did Coronation Street do so well and why were these details so important?

The Samaritans’ Guidelines Coronation Street’s storyline Why should this approach be used?
“Avoid giving too much detail. Care should be taken when giving any detail of a suicide method […] Avoid any mention of the method in headlines as this inadvertently promotes and perpetuates common methods of suicide.” p. 7. No indication was given of the method used by Aidan Connor to take his own life. The Samaritans has found that depictions of suicides can increase the number of deaths by suicide using this method.
“Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide. For example, avoid the suggestion that a single incident, such as loss of a job, relationship breakdown or bereavement, was the cause.” p. 8. There was no explicit reason given for why Aidan Connor took his own life. As The Samaritans say, providing one solitary reason why someone chooses to take their own life over-simplifies the reality of suicide as, sometimes, there is no reason.
“Avoid reporting the contents of a suicide note.” p. 8. Aidan Connor did not leave a suicide note. References to a suicide note can provide a reason for the suicide. As stated above, these references can over-simplify the reality of the situation.
“consider the lifelong impact that a suicide can have on those bereaved by a suicide.” p. 9. Throughout the entire episode, the grief and impact on not only the family, but the community as a whole, was demonstrated. Individuals contemplating suicide often believe that their families will be better off without them. Demonstrating the real impact of suicide on friends and loved ones highlights the lie at the centre of that belief.

But it wasn’t just their adherence to these guidelines that made this episode stand out for me: it was also the additional elements they included.

  • One theme that was revisited throughout the episode was the importance of talking and the willingness of other people to listen. As each character found out about Aidan’s death, they expressed how willing they were to listen if Aidan had wanted to talk to them. Reactions such as these demonstrate that there is always someone to talk to.
  • An alternative storyline was given that provided hope for audiences. Over the past few weeks, David Platt has become increasingly more uncontrollable and distant, engaging in erratic behaviour that demonstrated the mental turmoil he was experiencing. Upon hearing about Aidan’s death, David found the impetus to talk about the reasons behind his behaviour, ensuring that he was able to find the support he needed to help him deal with his situation.


Why is this storyline so important?
Male suicide, and male mental health in general, have been issues that have gained a lot of attention recently. In February last year, Time to Change launched a campaign aimed at encouraging men to talk about their mental health. But why?

Here are some statistics:

  • Men are less knowledgable about mental health and are more likely to have negative attitudes towards mental health than women.¹
  • Men are less likely than women to discuss mental health problems with a medical professional.¹
  • In 2015, there were 6,639 suicides across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.²
  • The highest suicide rate in the UK was for men aged 40-44.²
  • Male rates of suicide remain consistently higher (5 times higher in the ROI and 3 times higher in the UK) than female suicides.²

 

Including this storyline not only highlights the importance of male suicide to Coronation Street‘s audience, but also the importance of discussing mental health and suicide in general.

And these portrayals are just as important for the general public. In a previous blog,  I explored the issues surrounding problematic portrayals of suicide and mental health in the media. The key issue is that the majority of people draw their information about mental health from the media³, making it incredibly important that these portrayals are done right – especially as a desire for social distance from individuals with mental illness increases with media consumption4. However, as my previous blog post shows, these portrayals and discussions are not always done right.

So, portraying suicide in such an accurate and responsible manner makes it more acceptable for people to talk about this issue, ensuring that the long-standing stigmas surrounding death by suicide are broken down.

 

Resources
The Samaritans
CALM

Advertisements

Mental Illness and Violence: Media Reporting and its Consequences

I recently read Angermeyer and Schulze’s[1] paper, Reinforcing stereotypes: How the focus on forensic cases in news reporting may influence public attitudes towards the mentally ill. It’s a fascinating, if troubling, investigation into how crime reporting can lead people to hold stigmatising attitudes towards individuals with mental illness.

What struck me the most when reading this paper was the research that they drew on during their literature review. While I’m aware from various news reports[2] that public attitudes are not wholly positive towards individuals with mental illnesses, I wasn’t quite aware just how severe these opinions were. For instance, Angermeyer and Schulze[1] write that:

  • Public attitudes towards people with mental illnesses are dominated by the belief that individuals with these conditions are violent and dangerous.
  • A survey in Germany by Angermeyer and Matschinger discovered that the central stereotype for the mentally ill was that they were dangerous. Participants in the study even stated that individuals with mental illnesses commit violent crimes on a more frequent basis than members of the general public.
  • A survey by Angermeyer uncovered the popular belief that individuals with mental illnesses were more likely to commit rape or arson. Respondents to this survey also expressed the view that a murder was more likely to be committed by someone with a mental illness than someone without one.

What is so troubling about these findings is how incongruous the beliefs expressed above are to reality. In fact, a report by the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide[3] found that, across a ten-year period, only 59 individuals with mental illnesses were convicted of homicide across England and Wales – a far cry from the proportion felt to be committed by Angermeyer and Matschinger, and Angermeyer’s participants.

Regardless of how incongruous these beliefs are, they still exist and it can be argued that they stem from media reporting. Regular reports on crimes involving an individual with a mental illness can make the connection between violence and mental illness cognitively available to media audiences, making them easier to believe and, therefore, reinforce.

However, it is important to recognise that these reports typically tend to simplify the reasons behind the violent crime, so that it is solely attributed to the mental illness itself[4]. Contextual factors, such as social and cultural contributors that could have provoked the event, are often overlooked for a solitary cause: mental illness.

In fact, there are a wealth of reasons why someone may engage in a violent crime, such as:

  • Being exposed to violence or abuse at an early age.
  • Having unstable relationships.
  • Experiencing employment problems.
  • Struggling with substance misuse.
  • Having been violent previously[3].

Focusing solely on an individual’s mental illness when reporting on a violent crime, therefore, misrepresents the backstory to the event and the person involved in it.

This reporting trend is problematic as the link between mental illness and violence serves to propagate the stigma and discrimination experienced by individuals diagnosed with these conditions. Throughout her research, Stuart[4] has found that connections between individuals with mental illnesses and violence in the media mean that people are more likely to condone forced legal action and coerced treatment for individuals with mental illnesses.

Even more problematic is that the presumption of violence in individuals with mental illnesses can lead to others justifying bullying and victimisation of the mentally ill to the extent that 8.2% of individuals with a mental illness reported experiencing criminal victimisation compared to 3.1% of the general population[4].

So, why does this happen? Angermeyer and Schulze[1] explain that people’s understanding of the world rarely takes place through personal experience anymore. Instead, people’s understanding of the world around them occurs indirectly through media consumption. This finding is especially apparent when dealing with mental illness as few people have first-hand experience with an individual with a mental illness. Instead, the general public’s understanding of these individuals is often shaped by the information and images on the TV, in films and in the press. When we consider the vicarious movie depictions of “crazed killers” and the proportion of news reports associating mental illness with violence, it becomes clear how these public misconceptions can be fuelled.

References
1 Angermeyer, M. C. and Schulze, B. (2001) “Reinforcing stereotypes: How the focus on forensic cases in news reporting may influence public attitudes towards the mentally ill”. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. 24, pp. 469-486.
2 Fenton, S. “Majority of Britons ‘uncomfortable’ letting someone with mental illness look after their child, study finds”. The Independent. 4th August 2016. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/mental-health-problems-illness-british-social-attitudes-survey-britons-children-marriage-stigma-a7170281.html
3 Mind (n.d.) ‘Violence and Mental Health’ [Online source] Available at: <http://www.mind.org.uk/media/998781/Violence-and-mental-health-Mind-factsheet-2014.pdf&gt; Accessed 27.12.2014.
4 Stuart, H. (2006) ‘Media Portrayal of Mental Illness and its Treatments: What Effect Does It Have on People with Mental Illness?’ CNS Drugs. 20(2), pp. 99-106.