EastEnders: 'I was ignorant about my schizophrenia'

By Manish Pandey
Newsbeat reporter

Published
image source, Antonio Ferreira

"I was really paranoid about people around me. That they were out to get me and nobody had my best interests at heart."

When Antonio Ferreira was a teenager, he spent two years in a mental health facility because of his schizophrenia.

Now aged 23, the Londoner is using his experience to advise EastEnders on a storyline about schizophrenia focused on the character of Isaac Baptiste - a black man grappling with the physical and social issues associated with the condition.

'I had nobody to look up to'

Antonio was invited on set to guide scenes in real-time, and support the cast and crew, to make sure "it wouldn't be offensive or sensationalised".

Doctors often describe schizophrenia as a type of psychosis. This means the person may not always be able to distinguish their own thoughts and ideas from reality.

"It's important because when I was young and feeling like that in terms of my mental health, I had nobody to look up to or relate to," Antonio, who volunteers for mental health charity Mind, tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

Black men are far more likely than others to be diagnosed with severe mental health problems, and are also far more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, Mind research suggests.

image source, Antonio Ferreira
image captionLondoner Antonio (pictured outside the iconic Queen Vic pub) was happy to share his experiences

Antonio says the pressure and stress he put on himself contributed to him ending up in a mental health facility.

"I was a person from a marginalised community, but also one of the highest-achieving students at high school."

He was told he'd go on to do big things, such as becoming a doctor because "there's so much potential".

'Lonely experience'

But Antonio found himself trying to live up to "other people's dreams".

The "unintentional pressure" led to him suffering from non-epileptic seizures and auditory hallucinations.

Despite visits to the GP, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and time with psychiatrists, Antonio eventually attempted to take his own life.

It led to him being placed in a mental health facility which he describes as a "lonely experience".

image source, Antonio Ferreira
image captionAntonio says that now he is happy

'I was ignorant about mental health'

He says people with poor mental health are often depicted in media and films as "violent, spontaneous and gruesome".

"That's how I pictured it, too, so I kept saying that I wasn't supposed to be there and that I was fine. But I wasn't well of course. I attempted to take my own life and was hearing voices."

So being on the set of EastEnders and seeing Isaac's scenes was an eye-opening experience.

"I thought: 'Wow, this is what everyone saw of me, that I couldn't see,'" he says.

"It's great to have that awareness and what it means for a black man going through schizophrenia."

What is schizophrenia?

  • Schizophrenia is a severe long-term mental health condition that causes a range of different psychological symptoms
  • Doctors often describe schizophrenia as a type of psychosis
  • Symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, muddled thoughts and a loss of interest in everyday activities
  • Schizophrenia does not cause someone to be violent and people with schizophrenia do not have a split personality

Source: NHS

Antonio feels the storyline in EastEnders is crucial to breaking down barriers for black people and hopes it provides "openness, empathy and understanding".

image captionThe character of Isaac is played by actor Stevie Basaula

"There's not enough diversity in people sharing their stories," says Antonio.

"We should be giving a voice to these people, a chance and opportunity, because usually all you see is violent, threatening portrayals."

It's for that reason a scene with the character of Lola, played by Danielle Harold, particularly resonates with Antonio.

image captionAntonio says he wishes he he'd had someone like Lola (left) to support him

"She explains that people with schizophrenia are less likely to hurt others than hurt themselves, and she's saying that just because [Isaac] has a mental illness, it doesn't mean he doesn't deserve love.

"I thank Danielle for that scene, it was really important to me. It hit home because I wish someone had my back like that at the time."

Antonio says his dreams of being a doctor and saving lives weren't meant to be - but he hopes by sharing his story he can still help people.

"I left EastEnders feeling very happy and like someone who's able to help make this change."

Follow Newsbeat on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Listen to Newsbeat live at 12:45 and 17:45 weekdays - or listen back here.

More on this story