EastEnders has never shied away from tackling hard-hitting storylines, and in its 30-year history the soap has shone a light on mental health issues in storylines such as Joe Wicks’ schizophrenia and Stacey Branning’s battle with bipolar disorder. But now it has turned its attention to an issue that is little-explored in the world of soap – depression in young men.
With cases of the debilitating mental illness on the rise – a recent HuffPost survey revealed that 39% of males in their 20s and early 30s have suffered from depression and anxiety – ‘EastEnders’ has decided to help smash stigma and bring conversation about depression to the forefront with their storyline involving Lee Carter.
The former soldier has been struggling to cope over the last few months, and was recently diagnosed with the illness in emotional scenes that aired on the long-running BBC drama.
Actor Danny-Boy Hatchard, who plays Lee, has spoken about how and why ‘EastEnders’ have brought the storyline to life, in an interview for HuffPost UK’s Building Modern Men project.
The plot had been planned since Lee first arrived in Walford on leave from the army in April 2014, as the eldest child of Mick and Linda Carter (Danny Dyer and Kellie Bright), after bosses decided they wanted to highlight the important issue.
“It was always going to be a mental health storyline and I knew that from the start, I think that was the general idea of bringing Lee into the family in the first place,” Danny-Boy explains.
“Lee’s a young lad and with young men, they struggle to voice their feelings and open up. It’s worse because they don’t confide in people and they bottle it up.”
Both the writers and Danny-Boy were careful to ensure that Lee’s struggle didn’t come from nowhere, with hints planted in the script from the character’s creation.
“There were some little things that they added in the script and some things that I added prior to the storyline coming to the surface and the audience realising that there is something wrong with Lee,” he says.
Of course, Danny-Boy admits he felt a huge amount of responsibility taking on the plot, but was excited to be tackling such an important subject on such a widely-popular show.
“As an actor you get excited that you’re going to be able to stick your teeth into something, but then it dawns on you that it’s a big responsibility and there’s a lot of people who are going to latch onto a storyline like this,” he says. “You have to deliver the truth as best you can especially with a subject such as this one.
“So many people now watch someone at some point in their lives suffer from depression. It’s got to reach everyone and they have to be able to relate to Lee.”
Danny-Boy also felt the pressure to ensure that Lee’s depression was not depicted in a cliched way, wanting every sufferer to be able to relate to his story.
“If you play a stereotype with something like that, people will not listen, and that’s the most important thing that people listen to what is going on,” he says. “We want to make sure we’re relating to everyone who is suffering from depression so we can encourage them to pick up the phone, confide in their family and realise they are not alone.”
One way ‘EastEnders’ have ensured they have portrayed male depression with accuracy and honesty is by working closely with MIND.
The mental health charity have been advising Danny-Boy and the writing team right from the development stages of the storyline, and continue to give them insights from real-life sufferers as the plot continues.
Explaining how that relationship works, Danny-Boy says: “The ‘EastEnders’ research team act as the middle man, so if there are any questions I need to ask or any specific needs I have working with parts of the text, or scenes I think I’d struggle with, I ask them and they speak to MIND.
“They then contact someone, usually a young man, and ask them questions, which they then feed back to me. I then decide whether to use that or not, but I have done on quite a few occasions because depression is not an all-fits-one type of thing – there’s hundreds of different types of depression and they can all be on different scales.”
Danny-Boy describes his relationship with the writers, directors and producers as “collaborative”, revealing that they allow him to take the character in the direction he thinks is best for the storyline.
“They give me a lot of room to be an artist and do the best that I can with it,” he says. “They put a lot of trust in me, but if there’s any point where they feel I should take a step back or forwards, we always talk about it because it is such a collaborative environment.”
He’s also drawn on some of his own personal experiences to help him play the role, admitting: “Every day there is someone that I love and care about or that I meet that are struggling.
“Unfortunately it’s such a common thing now that it only takes a phone call from a couple of people on your contact list and you can probably have an in-depth conversation and you can ask more personal questions. It’s quite easy to find somebody who is suffering with this illness,” he adds.
EastEnders fans have recently seen Lee turn to drinking and partying to help him cope with his struggles, but he recently found an unlikely confidant in his estranged grandfather Buster Briggs (Karl Howman).
Not wanting to “be a burden”, the former soldier has been unable to speak candidly to his immediate relatives, who are still dealing with the aftermath of his mother Linda’s rape at the hands of Dean Wicks (Matt Di Angelo).
“The scenes between Lee and Buster are very important and interesting because Buster is a relative but he hasn’t been around long enough to know Lee. He feels like he can talk off the record,” Danny-Boy explains. “Buster comes across like a geezer but he seems like he knows what he’s talking about.”
Buster provided some comfort to Lee when he told him of a hard-nut friend of his who’d struggled mentally, and after some initial resistance, had gone on to seek help.
“That really rung bells with Lee because that was the moment where he realised that it doesn’t make him a wimp that he’s suffering,” Danny-Boy said. “That was a good turning point.”
However, Danny-Boy hinted that things could get a lot worse for Lee before they start to get better.
“It’s becoming tense and he’s becoming difficult to be around,” he says. “It’s that battle between Lee and his thoughts, feelings and demons and there is going to be a point where he properly opens up and admits there is a problem and that he is suffering. As the story escalates, I’m sure that will happen.”
Reception to the storyline has been overwhelmingly positive, with fans and critics not only praising Danny-Boy’s honest depiction of a young man suffering from depression, but also hailing them for creating a conversation about it. Testament to this is the fact that Danny-Boy has been inundated with messages of thanks from sufferers.
“There’s been loads of people messaging me on social media, I’ve had letters written in where people tell me their stories and I’ve had people come up to me in the street and tell me they really appreciate the storyline. It’s confirmation for me that what we’re doing at ‘EastEnders’ is actually working,” he says. “It’s mad when you think about it, because you forget how many people you actually broadcast to.”
He adds: “It is an illness where you feel alone, so if you can switch on the TV and watch someone who is going through something similar to you, I imagine that helps.”
‘EastEnders’ airs on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on BBC One.
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HuffPost UK is partnering with Southbank Centre’s Being A Man Festival, taking place 27 – 29 November. It will focus on lighthearted, serious and challenging issues facing boys and men in the 21st century. There will be talks and debates, concerts, performances, comedy and workshops with contributions from over 200 speakers and performers, including Akala, Frankie Boyle, David Baddiel and Kellie Maloney. Day passes are £15, 3-day passes are £35. For more information, visit the website or call 0844 847 9944.