Image from HBO’s “Euphoria.”
Editor’s note: Commentary pieces are expressions of the author’s opinions. This piece contains mentions of self harm and media portrayals living with mental illness.
When “13 Reasons Why” first premiered, there was much debate about its portrayal of mental health issues. And the truth is, it wasn’t good. A much better example is “Euphoria.”
“Euphoria” is a HBO show about Rue Bennett, a 17-year-old, recovering from a drug addiction, who narrates a dark coming-of-age tale about senior year in high school. It covers themes of trauma and living with mental illness — and unlike many other shows, “Euphoria” depicts these well. Here’s why.
While on the surface romanticism sounds positive, it can sentimentalize themes and subjects in an unhealthy way. Superheroes are an example of the romanticization of vigilantism. They are a glorification of selfless individuals risking their lives for others under the lens of benevolence. However, in reality, vigilantism can lead to violence and even death as there are no legal authorities in place to keep a select few from attacking others for a crime they’re suspected to have committed.
Shows like “13 Reasons Why” glorify themes of suicide, but what’s even worse is its romanticization of several psychological disorders.
It is incredibly harmful to portray mental trauma and illnesses negatively. People often discriminate against those who live with a mental illness, often treating them like second class citizens. Many are stereotyped and discriminated against due to their illness. They shouldn’t be discriminated against, but we shouldn’t portray their illnesses as quirky either.
While a lot of shows may portray mental health issues, they may not be doing so in a healthy manner. Mental illnesses are illnesses, not quirky personality traits. Per an USC Annenberg study on dehumanizing portrayals, these portrayals are most often attributes of shows that fail to represent people with mental health issues. Take for example how “Euphoria” and “13 Reasons Why” each represent a character implied to experience bipolar disorder.
The cinematography in “Euphoria” displays a dream-like sensation, especially in scenes where drugs are used. This itself is a trick, to lure you into a sense of safety as the pastel hues of purple then transform into a dark dreariness. This is a metaphor for Rue’s drug use and withdrawal.
Rue is implied to live with bipolar disorder alongside borderline personality disorder and ADHD, as she displays symptoms of mania and depression throughout the episodes. This affects how she goes about her day-to-day routine, as shown by Rue regularly being awake at night but sleepy and dreaming at day. She displays an acute sense of superiority, seemingly feeling invulnerable, and remains self-aware of her symptoms when pointed out.
Some of those symptoms can be attributed not just to a condition but to the impact from a narcotics addiction and coping with the loss of her father. She also feels extremely guilty as during her overdose, the person that rescued her was none other than her younger sister, who throughout her childhood saw Rue as her hero. The show makes an effort to show that not everything she suffers from is solely from mental illness.
In the second season of “13 Reasons Why,” Skye Miller is a character used to harmfully portray bipolar disorder. Skye’s bipolar disorder is often used as a justification for a manic tendency. Compared to Rue, Skye seems very one-sided due to her surface level portrayal throughout the second season as the love interest of the story, with the writers failing to flesh out her personality.
Beyond a brief scene where she considers “self harm” and the “dinner scene,” which visually show her symptoms, there really aren’t many more details we are given about who she is.
Portrayals of mental health in “13 Reasons Why” are perceived as a nuisance or, with the case of the first season, a lesson for other characters. Meanwhile, “Euphoria” shows that there is a grim dark truth that can’t be easily fixed and that pain and trauma are not easily curable.
“Euphoria” has elevated the standard of media portrayals of mental illness. It shows that a lot of the trauma and pain simply shouldn’t be seen as beautiful or meaningful, as if it deserved to happen when in fact it is painful and meaningless.
“Euphoria” shows there are reasons for trauma. It never shies away from these topics and does it without glorifying characters’ pain. Instead, it treats them like genuine human beings with struggles and dreams; even if it’s not always a happy ending.