Movies, Pop Culture

I never realized that ‘Skins’ would help me deal with my own trauma

It dealt with the mental health of teenagers without invalidating their feelings.

Skins, the controversial British TV series that premiered in 2007, has become a beloved cult hit in recent years. With its racy storylines and talented cast – Dev Patel, Kaya Scodelario, and Daniel Kaluuya all starred in the show – it’s no wonder why it appealed to a lot of people. For me, though, the series has always been deeper than that: it was incredibly validating to me as a teenager struggling to cope with PTSD.

I started watching the show in 2010, when I was 15. From the beginning, it struck me that this was a series for teenagers. The show unapologetically showed teenagers aged 15 to 18 doing drugs, having sex, and making some awful decisions, which meant it wasn’t meant to be palatable to adults. In fact, Skins was so unpalatable to adults that the US version was cancelled, partly due to the fact that the Parents Television Board boycotted it.

It looked at teenagers’ lives in an unapologetic, raw way. One of the issues it dealt with was mental illness.

'Skins' was never meant to be palatable to adults. Click To Tweet

Both in the media and in the rest of society, teenagers are seldom given the space to have mental and emotional problems. Symptoms of mental illnesses are often dismissed as mood swings or over-exaggeration. We should take it seriously, but we don’t. This is partly because children and teenagers aren’t treated as people, and we dismiss their autonomy, opinions and experiences. It’s called adultism, and it sucks.

The media perpetuates this adultism. In many sitcoms and movies, teenagers’ emotional problems are often made to be the punchline of a joke. The problems often disappear an episode, underlining the implication that teenagers are over-dramatic. These issues are often contrasted with adult issues, which are shown to be more valid. This representation did nothing to validate me, a mentally ill child. Skins was a breath of fresh air.

Initially, I thought it was a show about kids behaving badly and getting up to mischief. A few episodes in, it became abundantly clear that it was deeper than that. Skins dealt with suicidality, abortion, death, grief, psychiatric hospitalization, addiction, eating disorders and more. The show never invalidated these issues. The characters engaged in adult-like vices, but they usually did it to cope from trauma. I went from thinking, “Holy shit! They’re too young to act like that!” to “Holy shit! They’re too young to go through that trauma!” to remembering that in real life, teenagers deal with this stuff every day – myself included.

Both in the media and in the rest of society, teenagers are seldom given the space to have mental and emotional problems. Click To Tweet

On the surface, the teenagers were irresponsible – but beneath that, they were worthy of our empathy, forgiveness, and compassion. Like real teenagers, they all had their own struggles and hurdles. Despite the fact that there were a lot of central characters and not enough episodes to look at all of them closely, the teenagers were all were shown as complex humans with their own thoughts, traumas, and feelings. 

An example of this is Effy, one of the show’s most beloved characters. She goes through a great deal of trauma throughout the show: she sees her brother getting hit by a bus, she’s kidnapped, her parents get divorced, she nearly kills someone, she runs away from home, and she was abandoned by her mother. She goes on a bender with her boyfriend in season 4, but it’s clear that it’s about self-medication and not superficial pleasure-seeking. She ends up in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt.

The characters in Skins all had reasons for their actions. Cassie had a reason for her suicide attempt. Freddy had a reason for his reaction to Effy’s breakdown. Cook’s questionable choices occurred for a reason. Mini’s eating disorder was founded in real anxieties. In other words, the teenagers’ problems were shown as valid. Skins was unique in that it showed teens working through emotional baggage without once invalidating their feelings. For the first time, I felt like I had a right to be a mentally ill teenager. 

Additionally, it shows how the characters were let down by the adults meant to protect them. Very few of the characters have supportive parents or teachers, so it’s no wonder they struggle. In seasons 3 and 4, Jay Jay and Effy both see psychiatrists who harm them more than help them. As someone who was mistreated by the counsellors and adults that were meant to help me, this meant a lot. It reminded me that adults weren’t always right about these things.

On the surface, the teenagers were irresponsible - but beneath that, they were worthy of our empathy, forgiveness, and compassion. Click To Tweet

Skins is imperfect. The dialogue is sometimes frumpy and awkward, some of the jokes and gimmicks are cringe-y, and the cliffhangers are frustrating. On a deeper level, the show wasn’t the best example of diversity – I’d have liked, for example, to see a fat character represented well. That said, it was pretty revolutionary for its time. I can only hope that it inspires many future projects to deal with the topic of teenage mental health in an empathetic, understanding, and validating way.