On the slippery slope to soap addiction

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

First it was cigarettes and drugs, then the lottery and scratch cards. Now a new addiction has emerged - to soap operas.

A former office clerk has set up what is thought to be the world's first clinic to treat people obsessed with the soaps and has already seen 50 victims and treated 15 of them.

David West, 27, had the idea for the Newcastle-based Jack Duckworth Memorial Clinic after noticing how often his colleagues in the city's social security office talked about the programmes.

For most people it is harmless entertainment, but for a minority it becomes an obsession, according to Mr West. "Reality and fiction become hopelessly confused. The thought of missing an episode is unbearable; actually missing one can result in psychosis."

Mr West says he has seen victims from every walk of life - company directors, housewives, unemployed people, engineers, builders, cleaners. They are of all ages and both men and women. He treats them at their home and encourages them to meet other addicts.

Symptoms of addiction include refusing to miss an episode of a soap opera, watching videoed episodes again and again, becoming obsessed with the plot and feeling betrayed when a character leaves.

"The difficulty is that no one wants to admit they have a problem," Mr West said. "I would like to open up this debate because I see it as a big problem, much bigger than people realise. We spend millions fighting drug and cigarette addiction, but this condition is not recognised."

One of his clients is James McNamara, 30, a west London decorator. He became addicted over the last five years after beginning to watch daytime television while painting.

His obsession was so bad that he was unable to retain a relationship and became edgy if he missed an episode of any of the soaps he watched such as Eastenders, Brookside, Coronation Street and Neighbours.

"I would turn down decorating work if it clashed with a programme. I was like a prisoner. When friends came around I was more interested in the soaps. It was almost like my friends had become like the people on TV and the people on TV had become my friends."

Mr West is campaigning for recognition of soap opera addiction, and wants problem pages in magazines which can advise victims. "Part of my problem is that I have a to charge a pounds 250 one-off fee for treatment," he says. "Many addicts are housewives who can't afford it."