Anyone who's been watching Home and Away regularly lately knows that Joey Rainbow has been acting quite a bit out of character. He was usually quiet and studious, a responsible boy who gave Irene not a moment of trouble. But he's changed now – he's not the old Joey at all. Suddenly he's erratic and violent, one minute holed up against the world in his bedroom, the next thinking he's Superman and that his mission is to save the earth.

At first the problem seemed to be that Joey was taking drugs, but that actually turned out to be a symptom of Joey's problems, not the cause of them. As we're finding out, the reason for the changes in Joey's personality is a mental illness called schizophrenia.

We've seen Joey gradually disintegrating over time, going from being generally moody and depressed to hearing voices in his head and hallucinating. We asked Alex O'Han, who plays Joey, if he has found it difficult going through such a harrowing range of behaviour.

'I think "challenging" would probably been more accurate, although it obviously hasn't been easy, given the nature of his illness. Although it's been going on for a long time and I haven't had a storyline that's lasted that long before, sort of a gradual build-up to the actual storyline then the denouement and the continuation of dealing with the illness. It's been a really good experience, though.'

Alex has done a very convincing job playing Joey, so we asked if he knew much about schizophrenia before the storyline started.

'Not as much as I know now, obviously, but at first, how common it was, I didn't realise. I didn't realise how many different types and different symptoms you could get, and exactly what the word meant. A lot of times when people hear the word "schizo" they think it's just someone who's mad or crazy. I found that when I was actually portraying it I learnt a lot more about it.'

We also wondered if Alex had any input on how he played Joey at different stages in the illness.

'The script was fairly specific on exactly how erratic his behaviour was to be at a certain moment,' Alex said. '[M]ore or less the overall thing was decided in the script, it was just up to me basically how to… when it said Joey was getting upset, exactly how I'm showing that he's upset, obviously that was a decision that was made by the director and myself.'

Has Alex found that it was hard playing a Joey who's so different to the Joey he's been playing all along?

'Obviously playing a character after a while you don't expect things to just change overnight, and this was sort of licence to do that because [of] the nature of the condition. The thing was he'd have times of lucidity when he'd see everything very clearly, everything was fine, then there'd be times when he wouldn't go so well and act a little strangely. It was unusual acting differently because no other storyline or situation that they'd have on the show would present me with the situation where I could be completely diametrically opposed to what Joey would normally be like. So normally he's a very sweet, nice kind of guy, fairly straight, and all of a sudden he's smoking marijuana, so it was a big turnaround.'

It seemed so dramatic, too, to have the most dependable person in Summer Bay suddenly changing that way. We asked Alex if he thought the fact that it was the reliable, conscientious Joey who became sick might have been a way of saying that absolutely anyone can have a mental illness, no matter who they are or how they live their lives.

'Oh definitely, and surely if you ask people who they think would be the least likely people to smoke marijuana on the show, I'm sure Joey would be near the top of the list. The good, conscientious student who always said no to drugs, no alcohol, do your homework first and all that. So yeah, obviously, someone who would be in that situation, who'd like to think "a mental illness could never happen to me because I've got everything under control" – but the thing is no matter how in control you think you are, it can always get to you.'

This storyline is breaking new ground for the show, too, because it's the first time a character on Home and Away has had a mental illness.

'That wasn't brought to my attention till after we'd starting shooting,' said Alex, 'but… it was great to do something completely fresh, completely new that hasn't been done before, so it was a new experience for me, for the producers, for the writers and for the directors.'

It must also be reassuring for suffers of schizophrenia and their families to see that a top-rating show like Home and Away is prepared to tackle the issue and show its viewers that, no matter what community you live in and how far removed from something like schizophrenia you think you are, it can happen to you or someone you know. How Joey deals with his illness will also help us all out in understanding more about schizophrenia and how it affects people's lives.

Schizophrenia is an illness that can be treated. People living with schizophrenia can lead normal lives and manage their illness. If you (or anyone close to you) have ever experienced a psychotic episode or think you may be suffering from schizophrenia, please contact SANE Australia.

SANE Australia Helpline: 1800 688 382
SANE Australia Website: www.sane.org
SANE Australia Helpline Online: helpline@sane.org