For most of the 21st century so far, things have been looking up for mental health: more research has been done in the last ten years than ever before, and the recognition that 1 in 4 of us will experience some form of mental illness has put our mental health firmly on the political agenda.
With all this, it wouldn’t be too idealistic to assume that we’re more aware than ever of the complicated nature of mental illness. Unfortunately, we’re not doing as well as it might appear. Look no further than that beloved bastion of British teen culture – Skins – which continues its influence more than 10 years after first airing. As teenagers struggling with body image, Cassie and Effie, the yin and yang of ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girls’, were intoxicatingly accessible images of how pretty it was to be crazy. Lines like “I didn’t eat for three days so that I could be lovely”, were perfect soundbites, easily extracted and scribed into the backs of diaries.
Yet despite it’s seemingly ubiquitous position in pop culture, it would be unfair, even inaccurate, to lay blame for this irritating character trope squarely on Channel 4. After all, everyone from Hitchcock to Tarantino to DC Comics (really, don’t get me started on Harley Quinn) seems to be in on the act of hyping up mental illness into high-octane drama. Surely there’s an argument that these representations, however inaccurate, are better than no representation at all? Well, not quite.
Imagine you’re a student living with an anxiety disorder (which some studies suggest up to 1 in 10 are). Not only are you faced with normal academic pressures – deadlines, formidable tutors and irritating tute partners to name a few – you’re also fighting the seemingly insurmountable daily battle against your own head. Then, on top of all of this, throw in the realisation that you can’t even do being mentally ill right your struggles aren’t ‘pretty’ or ‘exciting’ enough to fit the Effie shaped mould that society has prepared for you. Imagine how isolating that is. Imagine how terrifying that is.
So, why is it still so hard to have constructive conversations about mental health? And why is it that, as a society, we are so incapable of portraying mental illness without using the devil’s trifecta of Tumblr poetry – glamorisation, sexualisation and romanticisation? Fundamentally, it seems that, on the whole, we’re simply uncomfortable with the harsh realities of mental illness.
A recent YouGov poll showed that 28% of respondents said they’d feel uncomfortable asking a friend about a mental illness they’re living with. Truth is, we’re scared of the universality of this problem, scared that when all the glitter is stripped away, we’ll have to face the fact that mental illness can happen to anyone, and it can be deadly. So, instead we just skirt the issue. It’s easier, right? We dress up personality disorders as appealing and anorexia as beautiful and anyone who doesn’t fit these criteria is sidelined in pop culture, as if their experiences don’t deserve representation.
Of course we need to talk about mental health, but it’s about a lot more than just talking. We need to start recognising the unique and individual nature of mental illness. We need to start talking about its magnitude, and we need to accept that rarely will these issues cut themselves into aesthetically pleasing portions for our consumption.
Skins – and other programmes like it – are beautiful representations of mental illness, but by virtue of that beauty they’re unrealistic and, more importantly, they’re dangerous. Trying to be Cassie almost killed me, and we have a chance to strip the stigma and the stereotypes from mental illness before the same fate befalls anyone else.