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World Mental Health Day: How Eastenders’ Lee Carter Gave One Viewer Comfort

October 10, 2018

As part of World Mental Health Day, Digital Spy staff are sharing their stories of when TV shows and movies spoke to them about their own experiences with mental health problems.

I have watched EastEnders my whole life – and I have had mental-health issues my whole life. These two things for me go hand-in-hand.

Watching the soap for 20-odd years has meant that to some degree, it has guided me through life and shaped me as a person. Sure, real life has been better in many ways – and occasionally worse – but what happens in Albert Square, Walford, E20, London has often reflected my own circumstances. That’s what soaps do, after all.

One plot that stood out to me a few years ago involved Lee Carter (Danny-Boy Hatchard). You instantly liked Lee – in some ways, he was quite stereotypical, being what a male “should” be like. He often thought with his fists rather than his head, he was a cheeky chappy and had variable success with the ladies.

This representation of masculinity was part of the story itself. As we got to know Lee more, we began to see his mental-health struggles – but Lee felt that he had to ‘man up’, that he wasn’t allowed to feel sad or scared. He had to be strong (the way he saw his dad Mick to be) and feel comfortable in his own skin (like his younger brother Johnny).

Lee’s story resonated because it made me address the idea of what it meant to be male.

Here was a guy, an Everyman, who for all intents and purposes seems quite content, like nothing fazes him. But wasn’t how Lee felt similar to how I did, too? Mental illness can affect absolutely anyone – and men can and should be vulnerable and share their thoughts and feelings.

Also, Lee’s depression was very much a slow burn – and that was relatable. It can be something that doesn’t just hit one day, but rather lurks and spreads over a long period of time. It can take a while to realise that it’s robbed you of your confidence, your self-esteem, and everything that makes you feel good to be human and alive.

For me, the photograph at the very top speaks volumes. There’s Lee, curled up, hiding himself, keeping everything bottled in and close to his chest. Meanwhile, a loved one – Whitney – is on the periphery with concern etched upon her face. She’s desperate to help, but doesn’t know how – if only Lee would let her in. That’s the effect mental health problems can have on anyone.

Identifying that Lee’s battle was like my own wasn’t so much a light-bulb moment, though certainly things became a bit clearer when I understood that traits I’d considered my personality were actually symptoms. It felt a relief that I wasn’t a ‘weirdo’ and furthermore, my anxiety didn’t define who I am. Other people go through this, too.

Mental illness can make you feel isolated and unable to speak up, so certainly the story shone a light on how talking can move things forward. We saw Lee struggle to come to terms with what was happening – but when he eventually confided in his nearest and dearest, things started to improve.

It revealed that there are people who will listen – a friend, a charity worker, a GP. They care about you and want you to succeed and live better. You are a good person who deserves guidance and encouragement if needed. That’s comforting.

Obviously EastEnders is a soap, there to entertain, so Lee just recovering couldn’t be the end – and that’s important, because that resembles real life. You don’t necessarily get over it – it can be a long journey, with rises and falls. It’s just a case of learning how to cope better when the tide turns.

Lee’s storyline wasn’t perfect. There were times towards the character’s exit where it felt the message being communicated wasn’t what it should have been. But ultimately, things turned around for Lee when he stopped pretending and denying, lying to himself and blaming himself; he faced things with bravery and integrity and saw he wasn’t a disappointment for feeling down or distressed. We’re only human – a lesson to us all.

There’s still work to be done, though. There is still prejudice about the mentally ill, so soaps like EastEnders can help to dispel the stigma and apply pressure on those in a position of power to improve mental-health services – talking is just the beginning. I’ve found that there is still a lack of care available, and so perhaps soaps could do better to reflect this. Not to scare people, but inform them and get things shifting.

Aidan Connor’s suicide in Coronation Street has been a triumph for raising awareness and starting conversations – it’s only been a few weeks, but the impact it has had already is astounding. And while that story had a tragic outcome, it was juxtaposed with David Platt’s story of suffering in silence following his rape ordeal.

By finally opening up to Shona, David admitted that he did want to live and not be alone and be stopped by the traumatic incident. He wasn’t to blame, so he wasn’t to suffer or torture himself any longer.

I’m not mended. I still yearn to be ordinary, but the positive that can be drawn from Lee Carter’s journey is that it’s helped to reflect the plight of people like myself. It has made me open up more, and understand that it’s not my fault, that one can get help, that things can get better, there are people there who will be supportive and that I’m not less of a man or human for admitting my differences.

EastEnders has made me feel a bit less alone, a little less scared. If Lee can experience this, muddle through and get out the other side, then so can I.

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