MS in the Media and Entertainment

This week, Katie St Lawrence considers how MS is communicated. What is the impact of celebrity diagnoses, how do soap operas handle the complexities of living with the illness and how will the coverage of Selma Blair post-Oscars impact people with MS? Read on for her take on it all. 

I will be the first to admit that before my diagnosis of MS that I never paid attention to the mention of the words Multiple Sclerosis on any programme on TV, newspaper or online articles. But as soon as I was diagnosed I started to notice whenever it was mentioned and I found myself wanting to read or watch what people were talking about or how they were portraying the disease. 

In 2017 two popular English soap operas, Coronation Street and Hollyoaks, both ran storylines with a character diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Both programmes sought advice from MS charities and worked with people with the condition to help gain knowledge on the illness. The only difference was that in Coronation Street the character was a middle aged man in his sixties while in Hollyoaks it was a young woman in her twenties. I sometimes watch Coronation Street but when I heard that they would be running the story about MS, I decided to tune in to check out how it would be run.  The fictional character of Johnny Connor started to have problems with his vision and balance.

While I found the start of the storyline to be great, I found it a bit unrealistic when only a few short weeks after having his first symptoms he had a clear diagnosis; many patients have to go months or even years of getting bounced around from hospital to doctor getting every test under the sun before they get their final diagnosis. There was also a scene months later when he missed his MS medication by a day and he became very sick and was almost hospitalised. However, I thought overall the writers at Coronation Street have done a great job covering the topic; they have shown how MS can be an invisible illness and how a MS diagnosis can have different effects on family members and relationships. 

In October of 2018 Hollywood actress Selma Blair announced her MS diagnosis in an Instagram post. In that post she wrote “I have MS and I am Ok” and while it was great to raise awareness in another post she talks about the mental health side of MS and other symptoms. While her post achieved nearly 50,000 likes, it also attracted some media headlines using words such as ‘bedbound’ and ‘heartbroken’. Most people with MS have felt some of the feelings that she talked about at some point but I can’t help but feel that because of posts like this, by famous people with MS, the media decides to paint people with Multiple Sclerosis as helpless, disabled victims. 

To be honest, before her diagnosis I had never heard of Selma Blair so I decided to Google her when writing this blog. When I typed her name into Google nearly every article that came up the headline contained the words MS or Multiple Sclerosis. It made me wonder if this, MS, is all the media sees from now on when they look at Selma Blair. 

Overall I think it is great that both media and entertainment raise awareness of Multiple Sclerosis,  letting people know that it is an invisible illness at times with no two cases of MS being the same, how varied the age range of diagnosis and that you can continue to lead a normal life with MS.

But when I read the shocking headlines mentioning MS, is the media coverage doing us any favours when they write headlines like that? Are we just being painted as helpless victims? Entertainment outlets and media should continue the topic of MS and work with people with MS. How about leaving out the scaremongering next time?