How Tinsel is throwing away a chance to make a difference for mental health in Africa

This post by me was first published on AfricanHadithi.com, a website about Africa's stories, by Africans. Go here to read the original post, as well as check out other interesting reads on African Hadithi.  Don't get me wrong, I like Tinsel.

It's a great show, with a good cast and an engaging plot, sufficiently complex and continually evolving. It's by no mistake that it's become one of the longest running shows in Nigerian TV—it's currently in its seventh year and celebrated its 1000th episode on May 23, 2013. Oh, and it airs in 45 African countries. There's really no doubt that the guys behind it are doing a great job, and they deserve the kudos they've gotten.

But there's one part of the show that's always niggled at me, and if you follow the show at all you can already guess what: the way the show portrays Angela's mental illness.

A bit of background in case you're not a Tinsel fan. Tinsel is about two major media companies in a big African city, and Angela (played by the talented Matilda Obaseki) is this lady who used to work for the head of one of the major companies in the show. She sees a mental health professional for some unnamed (as far as I know) mental illness, and is on some medication (also unnamed), which she apparently doesn't take as regularly as she should. And every now and then, when she doesn't take those meds, she gets to acting really weird, and sometimes even gets violent.

The Angela character leaves me a little frustrated.

Before you accuse me of just having the usual beef professionals tend to have for TV portrayals of their field (like how lawyers and the police always complain about discrepancies in the TV versions of their professions), let me assure you: this is beyond that. I mean, just the other day, I saw a picture on Facebook of what looked like a newspaper clipping, in which some ignorant soul referred to someone with the serious medical condition of barium enema! (So you get the context: barium enemas are a kind of radiological investigation, like specialised X-rays. Imagine that!)

That kind of thing is really only worthy of amusement, and leaves me shaking my head in wonder at such ignorance—at a time when with only a few clicks, you can find more information than you know what to do with on any topic only tells me that a lazy writer has been unleashed upon me. But you could argue that it doesn't potentially put anyone in danger.

Tinsel's portrayal of Angela, however, is potentially dangerous.

You see, whether we like it or not, the media is extremely influential. Even when that's not the intent, the way things are portrayed affects how we see things. With mental disorders, it's bad enough that there are so many wrong beliefs already, but when those beliefs are portrayed in media, it almost gives them a sort of authority. I can be more sure of my wrong belief when I've actually seen it confirmed on TV.

Angela is often portrayed as unstable and potentially violent. She's intelligent, but she's often used that intelligence for wicked ends. She can be nice, true, but mostly she's bitchy. And a lot of that is linked, directly or indirectly, to her mental illness.

And that's another thing: not a thing has ever been said about what disorder exactly she has or is being treated for. And as a professional in the field, you'd think I should be able to offer an opinion on what particular disorder she might have. I can't. If her “symptoms” fit into any particular pattern I'm familiar with, it's a pretty loose fit.

Here are the ideas implicit in the way Angela is depicted:

  • Mental illness is one single thing. I've talked about this before, in a post on my website, "We talk about mental illness like whites talk about Africa." The fact that her illness is never exactly described does not help educate people who think mental illness is only one thing. And that's even more unhelpful because…
  • She's portrayed in the common view of people with mental illness: unstable and potentially violent. This is unfortunate because it describes only a small proportion of the many people who have mental disorders. But since we think it's only one thing anyway, the minute most people hear someone has a mental disorder, they'll assume the person is just like that. And who would want to be friends with such a person? This creates another problem…
  • People who have mental disorders that don't meet this image often go without help. Those who know them assume there's nothing wrong with them, since they're not running around half-naked and threatening to harm anyone. I've seen people brought to hospital for the first time after more than 10 years of being ill and non-functional, just because they didn't "appear" mentally ill.
  • Finally, I believe Tinsel has missed out on what could have been an amazing opportunity to educate Africans on mental illness. Imagine their reach—45 African countries every weekday, 37,000 Facebook likes and 15,000 Twitter follows! That's a lot of potential influence. And the power of media is no joke. Media has contributed very strongly to the demystification of HIV in Africa, and one of the ways, besides things like documentaries and interviews, has been through characters in TV shows. The old saying is still true: "With great power comes great responsibility."

What then could the good people at Tinsel (or anyone else interested in portraying mental illness on TV or film or literature) do differently? How could they pull it off better, more sensitively? How could they use their massive influence for far greater good in this area?

One word: research.

Let me unpack that, though, for any interested media professional out there.

  • First, do your homework. Find out about different types of mental disorders. Go online—start with Wikipedia, even. Do some reading, for crying out loud. Decide on the particular disorder the character will have.
  • After picking the disorder, find out all you can about it. Learn about the symptoms and the way they play out in real life and over time, the way it starts, the treatments available, everything.
  • Go to a psychiatric hospital and hook up with some doctors. Talk to them about what you're thinking about. Get some advice and find out about any unique angles to that mental disorder (and mental disorders in general) for your own particular audience.
  • Get word out that you want to talk to people who actually have had to live with mental disorders, and hear about their real life experiences. (You have to be extremely careful with confidentiality here, of course.) Talk to their families and friends; try to get a feel for what it's like when someone you love has a mental disorder.
  • When you have picked whoever's going to act the role, let them know they have a responsibility to immerse themselves fully in all the info you've been able to gain. And gain some more of their own. That's what actors are paid to do, right?
  • Then let it loose and watch what happens!
  • As a bonus, check out more tips from the great people at the UK nonprofit initiative,Time to Change. (They also offer a summary PDF for download.)

This isn't as hard as it might seem, honestly. I believe the people at Tinsel just assumed their ideas about mental disorders were valid without actually confirming them. And who would know the difference anyway?

But mental illness has been well portrayed in a number of movies. A few:

  • John Nash's schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind (2001).
  • Pat Solatano's bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)—which, by the way, won an Oscar for Best Actress, and MTV awards for best male and female performances.
  • Tony Stark (Iron Man) and his panic attacks in Iron Man 3 (2013).

There are more, but for anyone interested in better portraying mental illness on screen, these are a start.

This stuff is doable, people. We can make it happen—we just have to be willing to.