EastEnders TV Program covers Schizophrenia

May 10 1997 BRITAIN

The descent into schizophrenia of the teenage character Joe Wicks in EastEnders has prompted thousands of calls from sufferers and their families. The National Schizophrenia Fellowship said yesterday that the story on Britain's most widely watched programme had attracted unprecedented attention and broken society's taboo on talking about the mental illness. The gradual breakdown over several months of Joe Wicks, played by Paul Nicholls, 18, has been witnessed by up to 22 million viewers. The fellowship said the story on the BBC soap opera had done more to break the stigma attached to schizophrenia, which affects 250,000 people in Britain, than any number of worthy media appeals.

Although Joe's condition was diagnosed as schizophrenia only this week, it has been clear to EastEnders fans for months that he was descending to mental illness. He has been hearing voices and has complained about evil forces trying to get to him. Ian Aldwinkle, the programme's story editor, said that he had decided to introduce a character with schizophrenia after working on editions of the drama series Casualty, which featured violent and dramatic incidents involving people with the illness. "When I did the research I was shocked to discover that schizophrenia affects one in 100 people, and yet nobody ever talks about it," he said. "All you could ever do with Casualty was the medical side of it. Because it has a continuing storyline, EastEnders was able to look at the effect that schizophrenia has on a family and on individual relationships. I wanted to humanise it and look at the emotional impact it has on people." Mr Aldwinkle said that, although the purpose of EastEnders was primarily to entertain rather than to educate, he hoped that the Joe Wicks storyline would be helpful. "It seems to me that mental illness is one of the last subjects that you can still make jokes about without being labelled politically incorrect, and that seems wrong. "If I get just one letter from one person saying that the character of Joe Wicks has helped to change their life for the better, then I will be pleased."

Fiona Carr, a spokeswoman for the fellowship, said that it had received scores of telephone calls from people praising the sensitive way in which the programme had portrayed schizophrenia. "One mother who rang said she had been watching the programme in tears," Ms Carr said. "She said it was almost as if the EastEnders scriptwriters had been reading her son's case notes."

Bharat Mehta, the fellowship's chief executive, said that EastEnders had helped to destroy the myths that schizophrenia meant that a person had a split personality and that the illness was likely to make them violent. Although the media often reported cases of schizophrenics who had committed murders, studies have shown that they are less likely to be violent than the general population. Mr Mehta said that, although schizophrenia accounted for at least 5 per cent of health service spending more than any other single illness, including cancer or coronary disease it was still a taboo subject. "It remains the last big stigma in society. Barriers have been broken down on Aids, cancer, Alzheimer's and strokes, but schizophrenia is not something that people readily talk about," he said. "We hope to change that."

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