Mental Health in Euphoria
Photographed by Cassidy Palmateer of Nyah Beavers, Sophie Dehn and Charlize Wright
By Cassidy Palmateer
When Euphoria first hit the HBO Max home page on June 16, 2019, the backlash was almost immediate. “How Much Teen Sex and Drugs Is Too Much?" was published on June 12 by representatives of the Hollywood Reporter who received access to the program prior to its official release. By June 17, an article titled “A Horrified Dad’s Guide to Not Watching ‘Euphoria’” had hit Ringer.com, warning parents against a show that was “a bottomless cesspool of underage debasement and debauchery.”
For those of us who had never once seen our struggles represented anywhere but the mirror, the show offered a firsthand glimpse of the pain many people go through every single day. While parents shuddered at how gory, excessive, dramatic, and downright naked the show was, others had tears in their eyes, watching a young Rue, played by Zendaya, methodically counting the panels of the ceiling light above the dinner table, unable to focus on what her mother is saying, breaking out in sobs when she is unable to complete the task. We watched in awe as mental health was finally accurately represented in a television show for young adults. Displaying the mental health struggles many face every day; Euphoria made an impact like no other television show ever has.
The show then jumps to a child’s therapy session, where Rue’s parents are told their child has OCD, anxiety, and possibly bipolar disorder. After helping to care for her father while he sluggishly succumbed to cancer at their home, we see a young Rue turn to pharmaceutical narcotics. In a beautifully illuminated scene that captures how Rue feels while high, she reveals that drugs are a way to temporarily turn her brain off, just for a second, as she continues to struggle with her battle. Rather than being a romanticization of drug use, they drastically cut from that scene to Rue entering rehab, and later show a graphic scene of her little sister, Gia, played by Storm Reid, finding Rue unconscious, and covered in vomit during an overdose. We watch Rue scream at her dealer and best friend, Fezco, played by Angus Cloud, blaming him for her withdrawals as she breaks down sobbing on his front step when he turns her away, refusing to sell to her any more with her current mental state. The program offers a raw look at the struggles many people face when after being diagnosed with a mental illness Around 1 in 4 individuals with serious mental illnesses, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, among many others, also struggle with substance abuse (Source).
A scene that the dad of “A Horrified Dad’s Guide to Not Watching ‘Euphoria’” found particularly disturbing was that of Rue, fresh out of rehab, sneaking out to her childhood best friend Lexi’s house, played by Maude Apatow, to secure a clean urine sample to convince her mother of her sobriety. We see a glimpse of Rue and Lexi as children at a birthday party and see their now-estranged friendship as Rue begs her to please help her one last time. While I do not blame the writer of that article for finding the scene disturbing, I do blame them for missing the point entirely. That scene’s purpose is to be disturbing. It is a haunting reminder to many of us that struggle with mental illness, that while we all start out the innocent child at a birthday party, life can take many paths. While we must accept the possibility that we may end up like Lexi, writing a play in her room, some of us realize the possibility that we – or the ones we love – might end up like Rue. The scene contrasts our childhood self–image with the tragic detours that life frequently takes.
While much of the focus is on Rue, our narrator, the show is structured to feature a character in every episode, giving plenty of time to represent other mental health struggles as well. Jules, played by Hunter Schafer, is a young trans woman who goes through a complete range of trauma on the show. We see her battling depression at an early age, spending a lot of her childhood in mental institutions, due to her unsupportive mother. As a teenager, she meets up with adult strangers, a situation that many trans adolescents encounter, potentially putting herself in dangerous scenario. Nate, played by Jacob Elordi, is a high school quarterback in the ‘perfect family,’ and struggles with his sexuality privately, taking it out on the women he attempts to form relationships with. Cassie, played by Sydney Sweeney, has been sexualized her entire life and deals with abandonment issues from her father. Although these struggles are hard to see face to face, they are an accurate representation of the array of struggles many young adults are challenged with every single day.
That is the beautifully honest thing about Euphoria; not a single character is perfect, and you can relate to everyone in some way. You can watch someone commit a horrific act, and still feel their pain and understand why they made the choices they did at the end of the day. As someone who battles mental illness, I find that to be the most wonderful moment to observe. In the media, so many people who experience mental illness are portrayed as antagonists who are unable to overcome their difficulties or as aggressive protagonists who have miraculously overcome their mental illness to live "better" lives. Euphoria shatters the illusion that you can only be one or the other. You are not just someone struggling with mental illnesses, you can be functioning, recovering, and just trying to make it through the day; these challenges are not mutually exclusive.
In a world where mental illness is often not discussed, the transparency in Euphoria is a refreshing change. They open a dialogue around people with mental illness, when they have been portrayed as manic, wild afflictions in the media. Opening that dialogue has the potential to change how people in our life view us. We are not broken; we just live our lives with a few extra roadblocks.
Euphoria may be dripping with neon lights, catchy instrumentals, and glittery eyeshadow, leading many people to consider it a “romanticized” look at drugs and mental illness. Sure, there are scenes about the feeling of a good high, and even descriptions of what being on drugs feels like to certain characters, but they are followed by scenes of someone’s life being torn to shreds, followed by the crumbling of the lives of everyone around them. It is impossible to focus on anything positive said about a good high when you are faced with the fear and trauma incurred when someone suffers with substance abuse. Mental health should be treated seriously, and Euphoria did an outstanding job of depicting how people of all backgrounds might experience mental illness.