The power of television

We spoke to Dr Chrissy Jayarajah, a Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist with Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, about her involvement in a storyline for the popular BBC soap EastEnders.

Dr Chrissy Jayarajah watches EastEnders at work, but there's a reason. As a Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist working with women and their families before birth and up to 12 months after, she was a guest at the Mind Media Awards in November due to her work with the Stacey Slater story of post-partum psychosis. 

Stacey Slater is based on a real patient story, Eve Canavan, who with Jenni Regan from Mind’s media department met the EastEnders script writers. Dr Jayarajah worked with them both to create a teaching workshop for students, trainee doctors, nurses and midwives.

Dr Jayarajah said: ‘About 1 in 10 mothers will experience post or ante-natal depression. Stacey's story was unusual; psychosis affects perhaps 1 in 1,000 mothers, however the character has bipolar and for people with bipolar disorder it's much more common. That said, this dramatic portrayal has done more for raising awareness of perinatal mental health than any number of leaflets or pamphlets. Demand for information last Christmas crashed Mind's helpline.’

Dr Jayarajah took an initiative with the Royal College of Psychiatrists Trainee Committee's Conference to run a workshop in 2016 titled: ‘What happened to Stacy Slater? How mental health is portrayed in the media.’ ‘I knew Eve and Jenni and as a supervisor at St George’s Medical School I had looked at mental health and film,’ Dr Jayarajah told us. ‘I particularly remember watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” with students and looking at how his films depicted mental health.’

‘I was involved in training junior doctors in postnatal psychosis at the time and thought a more interesting way of getting across information was through three multi-media workshops that involved both Eve and Jenni and clips from the storyline. Very few of these doctors will see patients with this condition – about one in 1,000 women might experience this after delivery so it’s very likely that many doctors won’t come across it, but using the power of television allowed them to access and understand more about such a complex condition, which was really helpful.’

In a straw poll at the workshop 90 per cent of attending GPs and trainees had come across patients with post or antenatal depression but only 10 per cent had training. The workshop has been repeated numerous times, including at other trusts.

Dr Jayarajah told us the workshops ‘generated some interesting discussions around the search for authenticity and depicting realistic experiences of mental health in the NHS system balanced with the need to create an interesting television storyline and the tensions between authenticity and something people will want to watch… The clips are distressing to see but maybe that helps the trainees concentrate. You need to remember that a trainee medic, in six years' training will have just six weeks on mental illness and only one morning on perinatal mental health!’

With a background in families and couples therapy, Dr Jayarajah says she ‘thinks about family systems a lot… Eastenders was a natural progression for me. It combined my love of characters and mental health and my love of perinatal mental health, which is a very niche speciality. It was very rare for this to not only be on prime-time TV but also to be part of the Christmas storyline.’

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