When I first heard that Coronation Street’s scriptwriters were taking Peter Barlow down the familiar path of alcohol relapse, I felt genuinely sad for this fictional soap character.
‘The poor bloke,’ I wailed to the research team, ‘you’re really putting him through the wringer aren’t you?’
But that just shows the power that soaps have to influence audiences – including someone like me who works behind the scenes with script teams to ensure responsible portrayals of mental health and addiction.
I’ve watched Peter’s journey on and off over many years. When I think of Peter Barlow I think of him as being the son of the legendary Ken Barlow and as the dad of Simon. Of him being in an on/off relationship with the fabulous Carla Connor (well, let’s be honest – with most of the Street’s women at some point or other!).
I think of him doing the dirty on Carla with Tina on (shock horror) the couple’s wedding night. I think of him as someone who ran a bookies, a bar and worked as a cab driver. I also think of him as someone who struggles with alcohol addiction.
The reason I mention all of the above is because soaps, due to their long-running nature, are able to show so many sides to their characters. We’ve both loved and hated Peter over the years for many reasons.
But first and foremost – he is Peter Barlow – not, simply, ‘an alcoholic’. And that in its own right goes a long way to challenge addiction stigma.
If a soap were to introduce a character and all we saw of them was their behaviour as someone in active addiction, all we’d see was the illness. You can’t have compassion and empathy for an illness.
Personally, I hate addiction, it’s a devastating illness and it destroys and takes lives. But we shouldn’t feel that way towards the person suffering from addiction – which is why it’s so important to follow the lives of long-term soap characters.
I’m Chair of an addiction recovery charity in Newcastle, The Road to Recovery Trust. I have lived experience of supporting friends and family struggling with addiction and I’ve seen first hand how destructive it can be.
I’ve also seen the immense power of the recovery community – and the impact that peer support and 12-step recovery programmes can have on changing and, ultimately, saving lives.
But in order for people struggling with addiction to access recovery, there are a whole host of hurdles and barriers to breakthrough – not least shame and denial.
Twelve-step programmes are free to access and anyone who has a desire to practice abstinence-based recovery is always welcome with open arms. Even if you’re still trapped in the throes of active addiction, the programme and community are there for you.
The problem is, addiction stigma is still rife in society today, with many people believing that addiction is a choice, rather than a complex and potentially deadly mental health problem that is often linked to trauma or other co-morbid mental health diagnoses. All too often, addiction is a form of self-medication – a way of easing the darkness, quietening the anguish or filling the void.
If you feel so ashamed about your addiction, however, you might struggle to speak out and ask for help. You might feel unable to even admit to yourself that you have a problem – which means you certainly won’t seek out the recovery community. The illness thrives on this, and thus the addiction gets worse and worse.
But if we find ways of encouraging empathy among the general public – through shows like Coronation Street that attract millions of viewers each episode – then perhaps, as viewers, we can begin to offer this compassion to our neighbours, colleagues and friends? Perhaps we can let people know that they have nothing to be ashamed of and that we are there for them?
Ultimately, we can help save lives.
Although soaps are, of course, fictional, they do influence what we think and feel about society. And this is why soaps take their research so seriously.
I began working with soaps and dramas through Mind’s media advisory service – a script advice team that was set up by former journalist Jenni Regan. However, soaps and dramas work with many different organisations depending on the subject of the storyline.
For example, you might see both Mind and the Samaritans working on a storyline together if suicide is being depicted. Similarly, you might see very specialist charities like Action on Postpartum Psychosis playing a key role in blasting stereotypes (think back to Stacey’s harrowing story in EastEnders). And of course, our Road to Recovery Trust is working with Coronation Street on portrayals of addiction and recovery.
As individuals who have worked in the sector for some time, we are able to quite quickly spot potential issues that may arise in a story or script. However, we take this work seriously, which is why we usually have more than one person working on a story.
In the case of Peter’s story, I worked with other members of the community with lived experience, as well as our founder, Lionel Joyce, who has many years of both professional and personal experience.
I believe that for this storyline, the team also worked with professionals who have clinical experience too. It ensures authenticity – and we always have one eye on how a viewer might respond to a storyline if certain harmful behaviours go unchallenged or do not result in consequences.
So while I am actually pretty devastated at what my fictional friends are going through this week, I’m also glad that Coronation Street is showing every side of addiction – as well as every side of Peter.
Life isn’t black and white, addiction isn’t black and white. And neither are the soaps.
If you need support with addictions of any kind, see the Road to Recovery Trust’s 12-step information page for links to all the relevant fellowship groups.
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