You, Me and Zak Dingle

The media plays an important role when it comes to coverage of mental health and not repeating the same old negative stereotypes. Far too often on our screens, when covering a mental health storyline, we see men being portrayed as violent and beyond reason, and women as anxious, dependent and hysterical. It is as if we have to conveniently fit into these preconcieved gender boxes to reflect our lives as a whole. This is not only wrong it is also extremely damaging to peoples perceptions of mental illness.

Steve Halliwell, aka Zak Dingle

Steve Halliwell, aka Zak Dingle

I don't know if you watch it, but Zak Dingle is a well known character from a popular TV 'Soap' Emmerdale. In the show, Zak is a retired bare knuckle boxer and tough guy who works hard and cares for his family. In his world, crying is for women and men use their fists to settle disputes and only cry in private, when alone.

In 2012 Zak, played by actor Steve Halliwell, was going to experience severe psychotic depression. Emmerdale's director, producer and scriptwriters wanted this to be as realistic and sensitive as possible. They were determined to buck the trend and actually portray mental illness as it should be portrayed. My voluntary advisory role, through Time To Changes' Media Advisory Service, was to try to make this possible.

I'm not an actor or acting teacher at all. My name is Lol Butterfield, I'm 56 years old and a qualified nurse, having spent almost 40 years working in mental health. I've been a qualified mental health nurse for over 30 years, and I have experienced depression myself. This combination provided the opportunity to educate the viewers and try to de-stigmatise the myths and misconceptions of mental illness. I relished this chance to put the record straight.

It was critical I felt to let the viewers see Zak as being vulnerable and his struggle to deal with his illness. This would convey the message that men are no different to women when it comes to depression.

Men experience the same emotions and require the same help and support. It would banish the damaging 'big boys don't cry' attitude that causes more men to take their lives than women who, statistically, are twice more likely to visit their GPs for mental health concerns.

The storyline in question lasted about a year. Throughout this time Zak found himself losing all insight into his condition and ending up in hospital. The hospital set up and the care approaches from staff were crafted from my own nursing experience and again aimed at trying to demystify treatment within hospital.  I was pleased that, overall, the TV critics and the viewers liked what they saw. Steve Halliwell's depiction of Zak's plight won the 2012 Mind Media Award for Soaps for his portrayal of depression.

For me, this meant a great deal, on both a personal and professional level. Throughout that year I put as much energy and creativity as I could into getting this right. I have seen many people suffer in my role as a nurse. Many male patients, colleagues and friends have taken their own lives.

I wanted this storyline and Zak's behaviour to resonate with those who were in denial of their own mental health issues. The irony was it was also aimed at those in my own profession who see themselves as somehow being immune from mental illness.

I was overwhelmed by the support and feedback I recieved for this work from professionals, service users and the public. However it was not all positive.

Some who I have worked with over many years felt by being frank and open about my own mental illness meant I was 'letting the side down' This attitude only spurred me on to be even more open and honest.

We still have a long way to go in order to challenge the stigma and change misconceptions of mental illness amongst men. My role was a small role that hopefully will have made some difference.

My media work and anti-stigma work in general will continue.  Mental health nursing has been my life's work and tackling stigma and discrimination I see as being pivotal in this role. I am humbled to have met so many people who have inspired me to try to make a difference.

It is an absolute revelation that Lol's years of mental health nursing experience could be utilised to such fantastic extent. For those of you who watched Emmerdale (come on, admit it), I'm sure you'll remember what an an incredible performance Steve gave with Lol's personal insight. What do you think about how mental health is portrayed in the media and on TV/film? What comes to mind as positive and what comes to mind as negative for you? Let us know in the comments below.

You can keep up-to-date with Lol on Twitter, where's he's @LolButterfield.