If there’s one thing British TV dramas and soaps are good at, it’s raising awareness of serious, real issues that the majority of us are facing or have faced at some point in our lives. From domestic abuse, addiction, health and sexuality issues to name a few, each and every topic is carefully and thoroughly researched in order to write an accurate, heartfelt script that will do their viewers, and real life sufferers, justice. Often, speciality organisations and charities are contacted, and the actors involved speak to those who have experienced or are experiencing these issues for real.
Take channel 4 soap Hollyoaks for example. Keiron Richardson, the actor who plays troubled character Ste Hayes, worked with the Terrence Higgins Trust in 2015 to get his upcoming HIV diagnosis storylines absolutely perfect. In a totally different kind of storyline, Coronation Street character Anna Windass recently suffered terrible burns to her legs after an episode involving an explosion. The storyline then explored her struggle in dealing with her appearance, leading to her relationship with her partner temporarily breaking down. Debbie Rush, the actress behind the character, turned to somebody close to her to research her role. Her very own husband had been burned as a child, and so was able to help her accurately portray her role.
The issue on everyone’s lips at the moment is Emmerdale’s heartbreaking Vascular Dementia storyline. Recently, an extremely powerful episode was aired showing the world from affected character Ashley Thomas’ point of view, giving viewers an insight into how the world looks through the eyes of a dementia patient. It’s quite evident just from viewing that one episode that the show’s creative team have spent hours carefully researching the condition in order to do it justice.
However, there’s one topic that TV writers seem none too bothered about correctly researching, and that is Diabetes. Diabetes related jokes are increasingly being made on TV, and they’re really started to grate on me and many others living with this very serious, not in the slightest bit funny, potentially life threatening health condition. Just last week, a Hollyoaks character made reference to a pile of cupcakes being “diabetes on a plate”. Diabetes of any type are serious medical conditions that WILL eventually cause death if untreated or not treated correctly. Since when has it been ok to make jokes about potentially fatal diseases? You don’t see jokes about cancer or depression, so why should Diabetes be treated any differently?
Alongside the insensitive jokes, we also have poorly researched storylines to contend with. In 2015, BBC TV programme The Syndicate messed up by showing a Type 1 Diabetic character using insulin to treat a hypo. The show’s writer hit back at critics, stating that the show is “in no way a medical drama.” She also suggested that the character could have been incorrect about her sugar level. Could have been? The last time I checked, it was the writers who wrote their scripts, not the character!
The BBC hit headlines again in February 2016, when long-running TV soap, Eastenders, made a ‘joke’ that got many viewers backs up. Character Kim Fox, who was preparing for her young daughter’s birthday party stated “If the kids don’t give themselves diabetes, it’s not a good party is it?” Eastenders’ producers stood by their script, stating “As regular EastEnders viewers know, Kim has long been established as a facetious character who usually gets more things wrong than right.” Not a good reason in my eyes! Type 1 Diabetes is also known as Juvenile Diabetes as it commonly affects children. It is NOT caused by eating too much sugar as suggested by Kim. Even more insulting was the fact that one of their other characters Paul Coker was an actual Type 1 Diabetic, on screen and in real life! By way of an apology, the soap promised that Paul’s condition would feature more in future. As far as I’m aware, and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here, but this never materialised and the character was killed off a few months later in a non-diabetes related incident.
More recently, ITV soap Emmerdale screened an episode in which Type 1 Diabetic character Kerry Wyatt went on a booze and chocolate binge, seemingly unable to cope with her relationship break up. The character is well-known for being one who ignores her condition, and was diagnosed with Diabetic Retinopathy in 2015, almost losing her eyesight, before vowing to change her lifestyle. However, her latest antics had many real life Diabetics perplexed, myself included, and we took to Twitter to express concerns about how there’s never any sign of her Diabetes medication.
Just to be clear, by correctly carb counting in order to work out insulin dosage, Type 1 Diabetics CAN eat chocolate (or any other food for that matter), but the amount of chocolate that Kerry was shown to have ate during this particular episode without appearing to have taken any insulin, would most certainly have put her on the brink of Diabetic Ketoacidosis, which can prove fatal if left untreated with insulin. As a Type 1 Diabetic myself, I can identify that Kerry is suffering Diabetes Burnout, which can occur for numerous reasons including stress. But without a proper on-screen explanation, non-Diabetics will no doubt be confused by her behaviour.
However, it seems that Emmerdale writers took on board the negative comments they received, as last week they, in my opinion, did a brilliant job in highlighting Kerry’s Diabetes after her sugar levels dropped rapidly, and correctly clarified an important fact on how to deal with a hypo (low blood sugar):
“Does she need insulin?”
“No, it will kill her. She needs glucose.”
Plain and simple. Although in the state she was in, she would have needed more than the little sachet of sugar that she was fed to bring her back to normal, I believe it’s a step in the right direction in raising awareness. What’s incredibly important to most Type 1 Diabetics is to make people aware that low blood sugar CANNOT be treated with insulin, a life saving fact that The Syndicate scriptwriters clearly didn’t bother to Google beforehand. It was so refreshing for me to see a TV show trying to make an effort for once. What I’d love to see now is a storyline focusing on Kerry finally seeing the light and taking obvious steps to get her condition under control. Only time will tell!
There are so many Diabetes related issues that producers could sink their teeth into if they just did what they do with every other sensitive topic they write about. Do their research CORRECTLY by getting in touch with top UK Diabetes charities such as JDRF and Diabetes UK. Spend time with both Type 1 & Type 2 Diabetics to see what we have to deal with each and every day. Hollyoaks had the perfect opportunity when it became clear that character Jason Roscoe was suffering with Body Dysmorphic Disorder in 2015. With Jason being a Type 1 Diabetic, they could have focused instead on Diabulimia, an eating disorder which affects only insulin-dependant Diabetics. A common symptom of untreated Diabetes is weight loss. Without insulin, a diabetic body is unable to break down glucose for energy, so starts to break down fat and muscle instead. Diabulimics, knowing this, stop taking their insulin in order to lose weight, often risking death.
TV bosses have a duty of care to correctly educate the public about any issues they relay in their stories regardless of the character involved. If there are any script writers reading this right now, here are a few Diabetes facts for you:
- Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune condition and is NOT caused by eating sugary or junk foods. The cause is currently unknown.
- Type 2 Diabetes is NOT always caused by unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits. Other risk factors include underlying health conditions, genetics, age and race.
- Hypoglycemia (Hypo) = LOW blood sugar. Do NOT treat with insulin. IS treated with fast acting glucose such as lucozade or jelly babies etc.
- Hyperglycemia = HIGH blood sugar. Treat WITH insulin: important to consult with patient or a Doctor first as an overdose of insulin could prove fatal. Do NOT give glucose.
- When hyperglycemia (HIGH blood sugar) becomes life threatening = Patient will experience vomiting, stomach pain, dehydration, frequent passing of urine to name a few.
- Diabetes jokes in any way, shape or form are NOT funny! People, including children, actually DIE from this disease! STOP including them in your scripts!
- Type 1 Diabetics can eat foods containing carbs, including chocolates and cakes, PROVIDING they correctly carb count and give their required dose of insulin.
Here’s hoping that 2017 will see some positive changes to the way Diabetes is put across on our TV screen. I can only live in hope!