The importance of representing mental health in soaps – and how Hollyoaks got it right

·5-min read

Through all the drama, marriages, murders and love triangles, soaps have the ability to make you lose yourself in memorable storylines one minute and fill you with happiness the next. But more than that, they have the ability to educate and get information out to the masses like no other forum on TV.

This was certainly the case when Hollyoaks recently took on a storyline that resonated with me – the internal battle of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Hollyoaks' OCD storyline centres on the life of Diane Hutchinson. Diane has had a turbulent few years to say the least, from finding out one of her twins had been accidentally switched at birth, to thinking her husband Tony had left her, when he was really being held hostage at a pig farm.

Diane then started a relationship with her manipulative father-in-law Edward, who tried to kill his own son (once he was out of the pig farm, of course) but died himself.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

The nail in the coffin came when Diane discovered that Edward was the father of her unborn baby and not her husband, who she had since reconciled with. Is it any wonder she is so stressed out?

Nevertheless, even with all that has happened with Diane, it seemed she was finally turning a corner when viewers started noticing the drip feed of unusual behaviour.

From not wanting to go to her hospital appointments and excessively cleaning because of a fear of germs, to constantly having the electrics checked from the irrational anxiety of risking a fire in her home which could harm her family – slowly but surely we have started to see Diane's mental health deteriorate through the condition OCD.

OCD is a mental health condition which leaves you in a vicious cycle of thinking obsessive and often destructive thoughts, which are temporarily relieved through a compulsive behaviour. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and can result in some sufferers unable to complete everyday tasks or leave their house due to their overwhelming thoughts.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

I went through a period of my life unable to function properly because of obsessive thoughts, which like Diane were based around holding myself responsible for any potential harm caused to others.

What if I hadn't closed the fridge properly – I may make someone sick. What if something dirty has been on a worktop – I may contaminate someone. What if I didn't lock the door, or check the switches, or turn the cooker off – I may cause a fire and be responsible for harming others.

Just like with Diane, obsessive thoughts had to be met by compulsive behaviours, from over-checking of switches to throwing away items. All of which would relieve me for a short time until another obsessive thought came along.

Unfortunately, many people are conditioned nowadays to use "OCD" as a throwaway term, often referring to their repetitive behaviour towards a task as OCD like it is funny or light-hearted and therefore nothing to be concerned with.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

This flippant behaviour increases the risk of real sufferers believing what they experience must be the same and therefore ignore it, when for a lot of sufferers this can be an all-consuming, life-altering condition to battle with.

Although OCD has been tackled on TV before, what resonated with me in the Hollyoaks storyline is the technique of using Diane's voice to talk us through what she is thinking when she is in an anxiety-induced state.

Past portrayals of OCD on television have been displayed in the form of actions rather than words – we see someone turn off a switch several times or excessively clean, but we are never really shown what the driving force behind that behaviour is, apart from the suggestion they are stressed, which is only part of the puzzle.

By showing what goes on in Diane's mind as she completes her uncontrollable behaviours takes us full cycle in her OCD world. It shows us her driving force is an obsession regarding keeping her family safe and eliminating anything that may bring them harm hence the compulsive checking, cleaning, avoidance behaviours.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

This is such a powerful tool in showing the type of thoughts people with OCD endure, and the level in which it can take control. It also displays the numerous ways in which obsessive thoughts can manifest in a person's mind and how such simple triggers can bring on the domino effect in this difficult disorder.

Doing this not only shows people with OCD characteristics they are not alone, it subsequently validates any concerns they may have in their own behaviour through seeing it played out on screen.

By choosing a character like Diane to fall into the clutches of OCD, Hollyoaks has demonstrated how mental health disorders can affect anyone at any time in their lives.

Although Diane has had many ups and downs, she is a strong female character, showing that no matter how strong someone may appear on the outside you never know what is going on internally – a lesson to us all.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures
Photo credit: Lime Pictures

Storylines like these are more important in our soaps than ever before, because while viewers of soaps love the elaborate stunts and the mixed web of relationships and murder (or sometimes both at the same time), they also appreciate the grit and rawness of real-life scenarios.

Seeing your favourite characters go through life events similar to yourself gives you a sense of comfort some people may not be able to get from anywhere else and access to advice they may not have been privy to.

I applaud the Hollyoaks team for showing the reality of the condition and for thinking outside the box by allowing viewers access to a character's most private thoughts.

I hope others that can identify themselves in Diane's actions are able to realise their condition is real and reach out to get the help they need.

OCD Action is the UK's largest OCD charity, offering support and information to anybody affected by the disorder. Its helpline is available on 0300 636 5478, while support is also available over email via support@ocdaction.org.uk.

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