Mental Health in Teen Drama: Growing Up With ‘Skins’ and Looking Back With ‘Sex Education’

Skins (E4)

If you ask any British twenty-something, the likelihood is they’ll recall when Skins first trailered on E4, back in 2007. Beth Ditto’s husky tones belted out the lyrics to ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ against a house-party backdrop of sex, pills, and vomit. Back then, my twelve-year-old brain didn’t know how to process what it had just seen, but I remember thinking it was the epitome of teenage cool.

During its moment in the sun, Skins was everything a suburban teenager wanted to be: edgy, deep, on-trend. It was different from your run-of-the-mill teen drama; the characters weren’t exceptionally rich; they didn’t always do exceptionally well at school. To this day, the show is praised for broaching difficult topics, including eating disorders and mental illness.

The realism that these subjects brought to Skins is largely credited to its team of young writers, headed by Jamie Brittain who was only 21 when the show was created. Speaking to the Guardian, Brittain observed that “It didn’t occur to me that Skins was dark, but of course it was. I was always into dark and bleak things as an adolescent… although there is a lot of light in Skins too.” And it certainly could be dark.

I grew up watching Skins’ first and second generations; each episode provided bored and keyboard-happy teenagers with Tumblr-ready quotes like: “We are the kids our parents warned us about.” I’ll guiltily admit to reblogging a fair few melodramatic Skins gifs in my time. Above all, who can forget Effy Stonem (Kaya Scodelario)? A character portrayed equal parts beautiful and beautifully broken. You only need to Google her name to discover a treasure trove of fansites devoted to her existence. 

Skins (E4)

Skins was – and for many still is – a way for teenagers to identify themselves. Its broody world was constructed with the best of intentions, aiming to provide viewers with an insight into issues that many of us encounter when we’re young. At the same time, Skins often fell into the trap of romanticising these very same issues – a trap that can be dangerous.

Cassie Ainsworth (Hannah Murray), a famous face from Skins’ first generation, suffered from anorexia nervosa. A post that regularly circulated during my Tumblr days featured a black-and-white Cassie, sheepishly smiling the lines “I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely.” Writing for Digital Spy, Megan Sutton discusses the “disordered relationship with food” that she developed by the time she was sixteen. For Sutton, Cassie’s ‘elfin features’ and  ‘eating-disorder behaviours’ were a source of ‘pro-anorexia inspiration,’ indicating how Skins could inadvertently promote the issues it set out to discuss.

When I was fifteen, I was struggling with my mental health in different ways. Rather than seeking professional help, I preoccupied myself with alcohol, house parties, and other harmful distractions. I didn’t behave that way because of Skins but watching characters that were a similar age to me medicate their symptoms with drugs and alcohol helped to normalise my fifteen-year-old approach to mental health.

Cut to the year 2020, I’m now 23 years old. I had heard a lot of good things about Sex Education but the last coming of age series I tried was Riverdale. We all know how that show turned out. After the millionth recommendation, I gave in and finally pressed play. Though each setting is bathed in bright technicolour that might suggest anything but realism, Sex Education actually turned out to be a frontrunner for addressing the trials and tribulations of adolescence in both a realistic and healthy way.

To sum up my feelings, I’m simply grateful that kids today get to grow up with this show at their disposal. Though Skins revolutionised the way teen shows approach once-taboo subjects like sex, it tended to leave many of its young viewers out of the narrative. Shaun Kitchener writes that the ‘rowdy, hedonistic’ Skins cast made him feel like ‘a boring square.’ I’ll go further and state that there isn’t anything less relatable than watching a bunch of onscreen teenagers who look like they were snatched out of a modelling catalogue. It’s refreshing to see a series like Sex Education, where difference is standard, where teenage awkwardness is a fact of life, where virginity isn’t that big of a deal.

Sex Education (Netflix)

Screen Queens’ own Aleena Augustine outlines just why Sex Education is important in her review; it tackles themes like poverty, teenage sex, and of course, mental health. For me, the key distinction between Skins and Sex Education is the way this last subject is treated. Where Skins provided viewers with an antagonistic therapist (Hugo Speer) that attempted to drive Effy to a state of insanity, the premise of healthy and obtainable therapy is literally built into the fabric of Sex Education. The show’s teenage protagonist, Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), inherits his mother’s knack for sexual therapy which he then bestows on his classmates, with sometimes nails-down-a-chalkboard results. By keeping the sexual therapy – and often emotional therapy – between the show’s young characters, the concept becomes relatable and, more importantly, normalised. These scenes can yield poignant emotional breakthroughs, a sight that could hopefully remove some of the stigma from reaching out for help. 

The show isn’t without a few drawbacks. It’s chockfull of unrealistic scenarios, like your teenage crush hiring a brass band to profess his love or an elaborate, space-age performance of Romeo and Juliet that was definitely way over the school budget. Like Skins, not everything is to be taken seriously. Mental health, however, should always be taken seriously, especially where young people are concerned.

The mental health charity, Mind, recently provided research to demonstrate that one in seven young people has a diagnosable mental condition. The Medical Director for Mental Health at BUPA UK, Luke James, commented that “while featuring mental health in popular culture can build awareness, inaccurate representation could be creating negative stigmas and misconceptions of serious conditions.” It makes sense, then, that television programmes aimed at teenagers should aim to tackle serious issues responsibly.

Sex Education (Netflix)

Thinking back to Jamie Brittain’s previous words, I agree that there is some light in Skins. It’s the kind of light you get when you’re finally over a dark part of life. For many adults, adolescence was dark, and Skins doesn’t shy away from that fact. But when sensitive subjects like eating disorders, drug use, and mental illness are offered up for teenage viewing, it would do well to glamorise them as little as possible. On the other hand, when Sex Education touches upon subjects like drug addiction or sexual abuse, it provides its young viewers with clearer cut avenues of support, whether through friends or through professionals.

Thanks to its presence on Netflix, Skins isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Nor should it. I’ll always look back at the show with a certain fondness for making me feel normal for struggling with my mental health at an early age. I only wish Skins had been a little more responsible with the way it portrayed its more sensitive issues. I’m grateful that young people today have been given a more expansive list of television shows, such as Sex Education, that aim to destigmatize the harder parts of being young. Whilst enjoyable, I can’t say that I’ve benefited from viewing this series as an adult in the same way that I would have at fifteen. If it has taught me anything, it’s that for all the times I thought I was awkward or uncool, I was simply being a teenager.

by Chloe Harvey

Chloe Harvey recently graduated her MA in Culture and Thought After 1945, which is a long-winded way of saying she watched lots of films and wrote a lengthy dissertation about the gender of Siri and Alexa. She’s currently residing in her hometown, a seaside in the North of England, where she’s mapping out her next steps. With her bountiful free time, she’s re-watching her film favourites which include Lost in Translation and Birdman. You can find her Instagram @chloehvy and Twitter @chlohrvy.

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