how ‘skins’ provided teens with vital, nuanced depictions of mental illness

With plot lines about eating disorders, depression, and addiction, the show changed the landscape of teen dramas 10 years ago.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
22 March 2017, 2:15pm

Ten years after it first aired, Skins is still as relevant to the GIF-sharing teens of 2017 as it was to the T9-texting kids of 2007. For seven seasons, creators Jamie Brittain and Bryan Elsley brazenly portrayed the hedonism of British youth, providing viewers with grime-soundtracked scenes of sex, drugs, and partying galore. Of course, the show was immediately met with criticism. British tabloid papers blamed the series for inspiring viewers to throw copycat ragers. But the most controversial, life-changing thing Skins did for its young viewers was stick around for the mornings after the characters' envy-inducing parties — showing us the eating disorders, depression, and addictions these cool kids walked home to in the early hours.

Skins presented flawed characters uninterested in achieving perfection. The show was in stark contrast to parent-approved series like Gilmore Girls, Dawson's Creek, and One Tree Hill in which, despite their melodramatics, the protagonists were always able to get out of bed in the morning. In one of the first scenes of Skins, virginal beanie-wearing slacker Sid sleeps through his alarm and is more focused on rubbing out a quick one than making it to school on time. Unlike its contemporaries, Skins concerned itself with the more sticky, complicated parts of adolescence: skipping school not because it's cool to, but because life feels too overwhelming that day; the fact that our friends can lift us up and just as easily pull us down; choosing drugs and alcohol over seeking help.

Skins was never a show that strived to teach teenagers how to fix their problems. If anything, the writers continually passed the baton. Pivotal end scenes would frequently cut to black moments before a proper resolution occurred. Plus, every two seasons, the show hit the reset button and said goodbye to its cast members right before they had the chance to mature into adults, replacing them with a new, younger group of kids. Providing happy endings, or endings at all for that matter, was simply not a concern for the writers of Skins.

The eating disorder of airy, wide-eyed Cassie is the best encapsulation of this. Despite multiple stints in rehab, Cassie sees nothing wrong with her disorder ("It's not anyone's business!" she tells Sid) and she flaunts how she's mastered the art of pretending to eat what's on her plate. For her last day of treatment, Cassie hides weights in the waistband of her skirt to reach the number on the scale necessary for her release. In the lobby of the treatment center, a girl sits next to her chugging a massive bottle of water. "Eight kilos of water weight," the girl beams with pride, twisting and squirming as she tries to hold her bladder. Skins illustrated a point that so many teen shows have been scared to approach: sometimes people with mental illness do not want to stop their self-harm. It's a part of the illness.

The lack of serious intervention or recovery Cassie experiences with her eating disorder is poignant and, unfortunately, realistic. According to the National Health Service, 8% of women will have bulimia at some stage in their life and it is estimated that only 46% of anorexia nervosa patients ever reach a "cured" classification, which makes moments like Miranda's one-episode eating disorder in Lizzie McGuire feel offensively over-simplified. An uncured eating disorder was unheard of in teen television until Skins. Previously, if a character in a young-adult drama had an eating disorder, you could rest assured it would be addressed, solved, and dismissed before the next episode. Instead, Skins chose to conclude its first Cassie-centric episode with her staring down at a burger, debating if she should eat it or not. The end credits roll before we see if she takes a bite.

Skins's representation of adolescent mental health became darker over the course of the show. The writers portrayed manic depression by having Effie (who, until season four, was arguably one of the most seductively cool, calm, and collected characters ever) completely unravel. After her parents separate, Effie enters a near-catatonic state of depression. Freddie tries his hardest to bring Effie back to life, but her illness is too serious and she attempts suicide. Some viewers criticized the depiction of Effie's downward spiral as seemingly random and under-developed, but this was a character who had spent three seasons partying as a means of distraction, manipulated practically everyone in her life, and witnessed her brother get hit by a bus. A comedown was inevitable. And besides, triggers or no triggers, teenagers are already vulnerable to mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 10-15% of U.S. adolescents experience a major depressive episode each year and that the rate of depression among girls is more than double that among boys.

Effie begins a new life when she leaves rehabilitation. Her days become meticulously planned schedules of medication, self-care, and productivity — little room is left for error. When we return to Effie in season seven of Skins, she's a twenty-something living in London, working at a stockbroking company, and sticking to the good girl act. Her Dr. Martens have been traded in for heels, she has mastered Microsoft Excel, and her idea of a good time is a glass of white wine. Effie was never a character to half-do anything, and her highly regimented life exemplifies the demanding amount of work it can take some people to achieve and maintain mental wellness.

While Skins ended in 2013, its effect on young-adult television is still felt. Skins paved the way for a number of shows to tackle the complexities of mental illness. Lena Dunham's Girls, which premiered in 2012, also follows destructive, turbulent characters who do not have much interest in getting better. In another recent series, the critically acclaimed Australian sitcom Please Like Me, the main character, Josh, spends just as much time enjoying his youth as he does tending to his mother's bipolar disease. The show's depiction of mental illness grows more nuanced when Josh begins dating a boy with severe anxiety and a history of suicidal thoughts. And then there's Skam, the Norwegian show that has found a grassroots international audience, and portrays its main character's struggle with bipolar disease and the strain it puts on his relationship.

What Skins did and inspired other shows to do is illustrate that when it comes to mental illness, the path to recovery is not always straight or easy — and that's okay.

Related: Meet the super sexy, super talented cast of Skins in 2009


Text André-Naquian Wheeler
Image courtesy Channel 4

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