Monday, 14 May 2018

Breaking The Silence - Thank You, Coronation Street

I've always watched the soaps.  Mainly because my Mum has always watched the soaps.  I'm not remotely religious about it and, just like Mum, I stick to the three main ones - Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Eastenders.  Of the three, if I had to pick a favourite, it would always be Corrie (with Emmerdale in second place and Eastenders being the one I half-watch, largely so I can moan about it...).

Soaps get a bit of a bad press, sometimes.  They're often unrealistic, with their frequent murders and characters who seem to have all had affairs with each other at some point or other.  But, despite the occasionally over-the-top storylines, soaps are supposed to depict everyday life.  Life, with all its complex ups and downs.  And so, over the years, we've seen some major topics covered, from racism to assisted dying.

These storylines often hit harder in a soap than they might in a one-off drama, for the simple reason that the characters in soaps are people we see on TV several times a week.  They're characters we've come to know and love.  We've often followed their lives for several years, seen them get married, have kids, go through various struggles and come out the other side.  We care about what happens to them, because, through watching them so often, these characters have subconsciously become a part of our lives.  We watch them experience love and tragedy.  We see them struggle with their sexuality.  We've been there through their highs and lows.

But, until last week, there was one major subject that none of the main three soaps had really covered: suicide and its devastating after-effects.

Last Monday night, viewers saw Coronation Street regular, Aidan Connor, appear increasingly detached from those around him, as he attended a leaving party in the pub, held for his father and his father's wife, who were intending to move to Spain.  In heartbreaking, yet sensitively portrayed scenes, we saw Aidan looking oblivious to everything and everyone around him, before the screen went black and we cut to him sitting alone on his sofa at home, sobbing.  Then the screen went black a final time and we knew he'd taken his own life.

Wednesday's hour-long episode dealt with the fallout.  We saw devastating scenes in which Aidan's father Johnny went to Aidan's flat, after his son failed to turn up for work, only to find a note instructing him not to go into the bathroom, but to call the police.  Johnny then rushed to the bathroom, where he found his son. 

Coronation Street did well to avoid sensationalising the storyline; we never saw Aidan's body, nor were we told the manner in which he killed himself.  None of that was necessary.  What was shown, was the massive impact the suicide had on everyone living on the street, regardless of whether they were particularly close to Aidan or not.

We saw Aidan's former fiancĂ© Eva, absolutely shattered by the news; particularly as Aidan had come to see her the previous evening and given her back her engagement ring.  Eva had thought they might be getting back together.  Now, she realised he'd gone to say goodbye.

We saw Aidan's sister Kate, first refuse to believe that her brother could have taken his own life, before becoming gripped with anger that he could put his family through such pain.

In a beautifully written monologue, we saw Corrie stalwart Gail, highlight the fact that whilst we like to think we know our friends and neighbours, we can never know what's going on inside their minds.  People can appear fine, only to be struggling with terrible, internal demons.  All we can do is be kind and supportive to one another.  Whilst Gail was talking, we saw scenes of other characters being told the news of Aidan's death, making it all the more poignant.  I've linked to the scene here, because I think it was absolutely perfectly done.

Not only were the reactions of characters closest to Aidan perfectly executed in the aftermath of his suicide being revealed, we saw many suicide myths busted by the writers, whilst also witnessing hugely realistic reactions to what happened.  We saw loudmouth Beth refer to Aidan as selfish for taking his own life, whilst another character, Gina, explained that he would have been in so much pain, all he'd have wanted was to find a way to make it stop.  There wouldn't have been any deliberate selfishness in his actions.

We saw Daniel tell Robert about a "friend" who had considered suicide, but who had kept his feelings of depression to himself.  Robert, realising that Daniel was talking about himself and having already mentioned having lost someone to suicide in the past, told Daniel to tell his "friend" that he would always be willing to listen, if they needed someone to talk to.

In a genius snippet of writing that could easily have been missed, had you not been looking out for signs that the writer of this episode - Jonathan Harvey - wanted to get a very important message across, we even saw David Platt's solicitor tell him to "man up," when David became obviously upset.  Cleverly, it was David who had the climax of the episode, when he finally confessed to ex girlfriend Shona that he'd been raped and had had his own moments of feeling suicidal, but that he felt better for having told someone and that he had realised he wanted to live.

To end the show on a positive, uplifting note such as that was incredibly powerful.  To finish a heartbreaking episode by displaying a character reaching out and confessing to how lost and alone he'd been feeling, but that he was now going to seek help, was absolutely the right way to leave things.

But Monday and Wednesday's episodes were more than just brilliantly written, directed and acted.  They were hugely, critically important.

One criticism given by a smattering of viewers (it's important to say how widely praised the storyline has been - and rightly so), was that Aidan's suicide "came out of the blue."  He didn't seem depressed.

I have two responses to that.  Firstly, 45% of men who suffer with depression don't speak out about it.  Toxic messages such as "man up," cause men in emotional pain to bottle up their feelings.  It's this pressure to keep things hidden that contributes to our enormous suicide rate.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.  In the UK alone, 84 men take their own lives every week.  Many of those won't have spoken out about their feelings.  Therefore, when men like Aidan take their own lives, all too often it does seem to come out of the blue, even though the reality is that that person has probably been suffering for quite some time.  In making Aidan seem okay on the surface, whilst holding so much pain inside, Coronation Street have depicted his depression and subsequent suicide with painful accuracy. 

Secondly, if you know the signs, they have been there, all along.  Aidan had been increasingly distracted.  He'd been clearly portrayed as mulling things over in his mind, looking distant or forlorn.  His sister Kate had asked, just days before his suicide, why he hadn't unpacked the boxes that still littered his flat.  He'd given ex lover Maria's son Liam his expensive watch, despite Liam only being a young child.  He gave his father an expensive gift - membership of a snazzy golf club in Spain, as a "goodbye present."  He'd made comments about Eva's baby deserving better than a father like him.  In recent months, he'd put himself down, saying what a bad man he was.  And (SPOILER) back in February, we saw him post a letter to his father, only to intercept the letter and take it back to his flat, when he realised his sister Carla needed a kidney transplant.  In tonight's episode, we discover that that letter was actually a suicide note and that he'd been planning to take his own life for several months, keeping himself alive only so that he could save his sister by donating a kidney.

The signs were there. 

Too often, our image of what "depression" actually is, is rooted in some kind of parody.  A person who never smiles, someone with visible self-harm scars, who openly talks about wanting to die.  But that is just not always the case.  More often than not, those who are suicidally depressed - particularly men, who have such pressure on them to be "strong" and not show emotion, lest it be confused as "weakness" - keep those horrendous feelings to themselves.  Depression isn't just sadness.  It can - in either gender - present itself as exhaustion, an inability to find enjoyment in things, feeling on edge or anxious, not looking after yourself properly, suffering physical aches and pains or feeling hopeless. What Coronation Street has done is lift the veil on this taboo.  They've broken the silence.  They've shown what happens when a young man, with his whole life ahead of him, keeps his demons bottled up inside and eventually feels so hopeless that he can't go on.  They've shown how suicide affects those left behind.  The anger, confusion, despair and guilt that loved ones feel, when they realise they had no idea of the enormous pain that someone they cared for was keeping to themselves.

This needed to be done.  For every man keeping his feelings inside and contemplating suicide as a way out.  For every person battling depression, who needs to be shown that there is help and support out there, if you speak out (as David did, at the end of the episode).  For every family struggling in the aftermath of a loved one's suicide.

The silence has to be broken.  Only if we speak out about this, provide channels of support and understanding for those in need and break down the stigma attached to mental health issues, can we reduce that horrendous statistic.  84 men per week.  That's twelve men taking their own lives every single day.  One every other hour.

It's time to speak out.  We have to stop the ludicrous idea that men are somehow weak if they show their emotions.  That depression is something that happens to other people, when the truth is, it can affect anyone.

Corrie star Simon Gregson, who plays hapless cabbie Steve McDonald, lashed out this week at a "fan" who ludicrously  claimed that the portrayal of Johnny Connor - Aidan's father - weeping uncontrollably at the suicide of his son, was over the top and "unBritish."  I'm glad Simon responded.  Because that attitude is exactly why this storyline was so important.

It's not "unBritish" to cry, any more than it is "unmanly" to feel lost, depressed or even suicidal.  We have to shake off this toxic masculinity.  It does men no more good than it does women.  It contributes to a culture in which almost half of men who experience depression, feel unable or unwilling to speak to anyone about it, or reach out for help.  That in turn, contributes to our horrendously high suicide rate.  That outdated, pathetic attitude - that men don't cry, that we Brits must always keep a stiff upper lip, even in the face of heart-wrenching tragedy - is causing people to bottle up emotions until they explode.  That attitude is killing people.

I wholeheartedly applaud Coronation Street for their sensitive handling of an incredibly powerful, important subject.  I can't praise the actors, writers and directors enough.  

The silence has been broken.  Let's keep it that way.  If you need help, there is no shame in asking for it.

Let's break the stigma.

Samaritans: Free 24hr telephone number (available 356 days a year): 116 123  Email:

No comments:

Post a comment

Drop me a line!