Image: Flickr/ Jonathan Schultheis

Skins and the glamourising of mental illnesses

Skins followed the lives of various groups of British teenagers as they grew up – it’s natural then, of course, that the show depicted various characters with mental illnesses.

But the representation of mental health problems in Skins largely enforces representations of mental health problems as something that only effects a particular group of society, predominately white teenage girls rather than allowing viewers to see any diversity in those affected.

 Effy Stonem in particular portrayed a worrying stereotype of mental illness. As a slim, white female, she conforms to all too typical tropes of mental illness. While girls who look exactly like Effy do suffer from mental illnesses, there are also vast majorities of people that suffer who do not resemble her in any way.

Whether this be men, people from other ethnicities, or people older than their teens, mental health affects everyone. Effy’s character perpetrates the stereotype that leads to increasing stigma in society: that illnesses like depression only affect slim, pretty, white girls.

Effy’s story-lines glamourise mental health problems as something that will make you increasingly desirable to boys who want to ‘fix’ you.

Effy is one of the most popular Skins characters, portrayed as beautiful and complicated. If anything though, her story-lines glamourise mental health problems as something that will make you increasingly desirable to boys who want to ‘fix’ you. Her depiction of mental health, although at times gritty and bordering on realistic, is mostly based around a fantastical perception in which mental problems make you increasingly attractive and interesting.

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Image: Flickr/ An die ferne Geliebte

There was also Cassie in the first generation of Skins, who from the first episode had a serious problem with an eating disorder. Eating disorders are one of the most deadly mental illnesses, with an incredibly high mortality rate. Yet Cassie’s character only hindered the representation of mental health, suggesting that eating disorders only affect pretty, white females. Yet again, this is far from reality: in fact eating disorders among men are a steadily rising crisis, however I don’t personally recall a time I saw a male character in TV who had an eating disorder.

 By glamourising these problems, TV shows trivialise all those who actually suffer from these illnesses.

Representation, particularly with issues like mental health where there is such prevalent stigma, is crucial in TV shows and popular culture in general. If people are led by shows like Skins to believe that mental health problems only affect people of a certain gender or ethnicity, like Cassie and Effy, there is no way to breakdown stereotypes and misunderstanding. By glamourising these problems, TV shows trivialise all those who actually suffer from these illnesses.

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Comments (4)

  • I love the idea of this article but I was expecting a lot more depth. I watched skins whilst I was really struggling with life and it helped me to see someone else struggling, whoever they were. The fact Cassie and Effie are beautiful has nothing to do with it. Did you not pay attention to half the other storylines? Many of the male characters were struggling with addiction, depression or anxiety – or at least they were displaying symptoms.

    Unfortunately the question to ask is whether it would’ve made such good TV without the beauty of these characters? Would it have been as compelling? Don’t you need to see someone who has everything going for them struggling too? I would argue it perhaps validates it.

  • I have a dim memory of Byker Grove featuring a storyline with a bulimic boy. That show made some brave choices. As to the fact that the characters portrayed in Skins (and Byker Grove come to that) are teenagers, I think this is because the target audience are teenagers. Yes all age groups are affected but if you show a struggling teen another struggling teen they are more likely to pay attention. It’s true though that there was very little ethnic diversity in Skins, that which there was played on racial stereotypes (Posh Kenneth anyone?) And frankly Effy was annoying as hell with her “I’m so troubled and all I do is smoke pot and pout” affectations…

  • I found after watching skins it somewhat made my mental health worse, it was making me feel worse than I was before I’m not sure why but it’s a very triggering show I don’t think people who are struggling with mental health should watch as it could be very triggering to them

  • Your analysis would be correct if Effy and Cassie were the only characters in the show who experience mental health problems. However, there is a plethora of characters in each incarnation of the show and most of them deal with some sort of mental health issue. In the later episodes, we see Liv, a woman of colour have an extensive storyline about her own experience of substance abuse and depression. We also see Effy’s brother Tony experience mental illness and display a lot of the same manipulative behaviours that Effy does. Cook is another character who experiences mental illness in excess.

    I also think you’re wrong about the show glamourizing mental illness if anything, it shows a scary reality. You can do as much partying and fucking as you want but you have to address your problems or you’ll wake up with them each day.

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