– it really needn’t have happened.
I must admit to being an avid follower of the trials and tribulations of the denizens of Albert Square, a habit I acquired after arriving to study in England over 2 decades ago. The Eastenders’ storylines usually provide little more than mild entertainment, pretend shock and passing disapproval – the attraction being that the characters seem to live crazy stereotypically Cockney lives that have little relation to my reality.
This was true until last month, when the series began focusing on the desperate story of disabled single mother, Dinah, and her plucky young (primary school-age) daughter, Bailey. In the programme Dinah is in her early 40s and has progressive MS (like me), which has put her in a wheelchair, with most of her time spent in the confines of her home or hospital, where she receives treatment for falls and respiratory problems, including pneumonia. This means young Bailey has had to take on the role of her mum’s main carer - cooking, shopping and seemingly being her mum’s only companion (and this only outside school hours). It’s a situation that is unbelievably bleak for both Dinah and Bailey, though their love for each other shines through in spite of all the challenges.
Caring on her own for her mother, clearly places an unacceptable burden on the shoulders of such a young child (I can hardly believe this would be allowed to happen in 2019 Britain – that’s austerity for you, I guess) but Bailey copes incredibly well mentally, as young children do– she is brave, resilient and ferociously protective of her mother and their life together. Dinah, on the other hand, finds it impossible to reconcile her disability and lifestyle with being a mother. We watch in horror as her mental health deteriorates on screen with feelings of guilt, low self-worth and loneliness festering day on day and eventually overwhelming her. Her problems culminate in her tragic suicide which occurs when she is left alone at home in her chair yet again, while Bailey and the rest of the extended family enjoy the afternoon together playing games at the local park.
Dinah and Bailey are just fictional characters of course, but the issues and suffering in their story are very real. As a disabled mother with young children in real life, I completely recognise the feelings that plague Dinah and have been affected by the same doubts and depression to a certain extent. I’m sometimes floored by feelings of being a burden and worthless. On bad days, I’m struck down by terrible guilt that I can no longer look after my children in the same way because of my illness. Mental health problems linked to long-term illness and disability are often hidden and ignored – worrying about a disabled person’s mood pales into insignificance compared to the more in-your-face significance of physical problems. Nonetheless, I know that the two are intrinsically linked, even if society often fails to acknowledge this. I think the Eastenders’ scriptwriters made a really brave decision to raise awareness of the problem of how severe depression can affect the physically disabled and those with long–term conditions. For me, the answer is to promote social inclusion, to focus on what people can do, not what they can’t do. I’ve been very fortunate to have the love and support of my husband, Tegid, and our children to help me navigate through life with a disability. Equally, I have met absolutely wonderful people while building and spreading Exercise for All’s message on the need for inclusion to the public.
Though I have found a way to deal with the mental challenges I face, this is not the case for all people in our communities, and for this reason EfA has applied to the Economic and Social Research Council for funding to run another event as part of their festival later this year– this time focusing on how activities in the community could fight mental challenges amongst the long-term physically disabled. We must change how we do things so that Dinah’s story only remains soap opera fiction.
What you can do to support a physically disabled friend or family member to help them feel better in themselves...
Make sure they are actually included in everyday activities in the community – even shopping at Tesco or Lidl or going to the park.
Make sure they get out in the fresh air as often as possible – nobody wants to be stuck at home staring at 4 walls for days on end, like Dinah was.
Find out what they enjoy doing and make it possible – it could be reading, art, baking, Cosplay or flower-arranging – everyone deserves to express themselves.
Go to the cinema or a concert– schemes like the Hynt card make this easy and affordable.
Encourage them to interact with other people who understand. They may or may not have a physical disability but care about combating social exclusion – sharing with others can reduce the burden of low mood, and lead to fantastic things like building a community or a campaign – just like EfA.
Help them to exercise! Exercising means doing something positive to help yourself.
Please remember if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, there is help available right now if you need it, you do not have to struggle with your feelings alone.
Free helplines are there to help when you're feeling down or desperate.
Unless it says otherwise, they're open 24 hours a day, every day.