Euphoria offers a much-needed, fresh perspective on mental health problems in teenage girls

Instead of romanticising Rue's trauma, Euphoria shows her days stretching out ahead of her: a monotonous Sisyphean struggle with her own psyche.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

For 22 hours Rue has been entombed in her duvet watching Love Island. Time slips into nothingness, but Ian Stirling’s thrilled pronouncement “Previously, on Love Island” repeats itself like an incantation. Her muscles waste away, her stomach empties, her breath turns rancid: Rue watches the show until it feels like work. Soon breathing does, too, existing even. The camera shows Rue’s bladder, red and angry, a Whoopee Cushion ready to blow. Days have passed but she can no longer command her legs to take her to the toilet. Eventually Rue’s mother Leslie finds her collapsed and shivering in the corridor with a kidney infection.

Discussions of HBO’s Euphoria (now airing on Sky Atlantic in the UK) have focused on sex, parties and the “gratuitous” scene where thirty flaccid dicks are shown dangling at incredibly close range in a steamy locker room. But infinitely more interesting than a tour of the male anatomy is Euphoria’s depiction of the suffocating boredom of mental illness. Rue suffers from ADHD, bipolar, general anxiety, depression, and BPD – and rather than romanticising her trauma, creator Sam Levinson shows Rue’s days stretching out ahead of her: a monotonous Sisyphean struggle with her own psyche.

The eroticisation of women’s madness goes as far back as Shakespeare’s Ophelia. In Hamlet, Ophelia’s behaviour and appearance are characteristic of the disorder Elizabethans would have diagnosed as love-melancholy, or erotomania. Driven to hysteria by the actions of men, Ophelia’s madness is carnal, she dresses in fantastical garlands, she gives men daisies, pansies and fennel and in doing so, symbolically deflowers herself. Her long and tangled hair is an offence against decorum suggestive of sensuality. She drowns in a river and her hardened corpse looks beautiful even in death.

Other teenage dramas have moulded female leads into Ophelia-like lightning storms of manic beauty. Where Ophelia is quiet, in early episodes of Skins, Effy is entirely voiceless, her silence rendering her mysterious and ethereal. Effy’s wild behaviour makes her exciting while also turning her into an object men want to protect, her eye makeup cried into a perfect smoky line. We see this again with Gossip Girl’s Serena Van Der Woodsen, The OC’s Marissa Cooper, One Tree Hill’s Rachel Gatina, all chaotic heroines who spend their teenage years drink driving and making out with their drug dealers.

Where other teenage dramas uniformly locate female mental illness in an absent father, Euphoria poses a more complex cause for Rue’s problems. In the opening scene, we watch Rue rush out of the womb’s warm enclave and into a world where a plane has just crashed into the Twin Towers. Rue’s chances of happiness were over the minute she left the comfort of her “primordial pool”. Earth is a place where we are constantly teetering on the brink of nuclear war, where men in power grab women by the pussy, where the 1 per cent who have accelerated climate change are also the only ones that will afford the million dollar escape route to Mars. Later we watch Rue sitting through an active shooter drill: she rolls her eyes as the guy opposite flashes the porn playing on his iPhone. “I know it all may seem sad,” Rue tells us, “but guess what? I didn't build this system, nor did I fuck it up.”

As a child growing up in an affluent L.A suburb, Rue compulsively counts her bedroom’s ceiling tiles, and has panic attacks when she looks at herself in the mirror. As a teenager, she begins stealing her Dad’s Xanex, enjoying the soupy numbness that makes everything feel like nothing for a while:

And then it happens: That moment when your breath starts to slow. And every time you breathe, you breathe out all the oxygen you have, and everything stops: your heart. Your lungs. And finally, your brain. And everything you feel and wish and want to forget, it all just sinks. And then suddenly, you give it air again. Give it life again. I remember the first time it happened to me I got so scared, I wanted to call 911—go to the hospital and be kept alive by machines and apple juice. But I didn't want to look like an idiot. I didn't want to fuck up anyone's night. And then over time, that's all I wanted: those two seconds of nothingness.

Watching Rue contract a urine infection in real-time is a difficult viewing experience, but Euphoria manages to find humour in it. When Rue’s friend Jules stops replying to texts, Rue goes full Morgan Freeman-style tough cop, complete with a revolver, bad language, bottomless cups of black coffee and a chain-smoking habit. She lays out maps of evidence, connecting the dots with thin red lines, her school friend Lexi drafted in as the partner helping her to crack the case. These scenes demonstrate the odd clarity manic episodes can often bring: as though you’re finally seeing how everything on Earth is interconnected in some cosmic coherent pattern.

But it’s a brief moment of comic relief. Still in her manic episode Rue counts her footsteps as she walks down the street, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven”, starting again every time she disrupts whatever militaristic logic she’s forcing herself to adhere to. Just like that, she’s a child again, counting the ceiling over her breakfast. Rue will never be rid of her affliction, it’s in her bones:

I had a therapist once who said that these states will wax and wane. Which gave my mother relief, because it meant that in the bad times, there would be good times. But it also gave her anxiety because it meant that in the good times, there would be bad times. It always confused me, because I didn't really know what it meant. But it did sound a lot calmer than the way I would describe it. Granted, I didn't realize until later what waxing and waning implied. That these feelings were fixed and constant and would never end for the rest of my life.

When Rue’s mother finds her lying on the carpet after her Love Island binge session, she scoops her up and cleans her in the bath. A hot flannel washes away the bad feelings: for the first time in the whole episode, Rue looks calm. Later, when she’s lying in a hospital bed, a doctor comes in and offers her Vicodin. Rue declines: she’s trying not to go back on the painkillers again.

We see a similar ritual in Skins. After taking magic mushrooms in the forest, Effy has a psychotic episode and knocks her friend on the head with a rock. Back home, Effy’s mum dabs the soil off her skin and Effy goes to the hospital to apologise to her friends. Here, she looks kinder and more vulnerable than she ever has – bathing becomes a rebaptism, and pain is washed down the drain by something akin to holy water.

Baths can be home to endings as well as new beginnings. After losing her mind Ophelia drowns herself in a river: in paintings her messy hair surrounds her like a halo, her skin exposed through her wet dress. Even in death she is sexualised: “Her clothes spread wide/ And, mermaid-like awhile they bore her up”. In the graphic final scene of 13 Reasons Why, the protagonist Hannah slits her wrists in a full bathtub.

Far too often, mental health problems are used as a shortcut, a way to make female characters more tragically alluring. In Euphoria, Rue’s multiple mental health issues aren't glamourised, but rather depicted as a painful inconvenience that she will be gripped by her entire life. We don’t know what will happen to Rue – whether her life will be broken by white powder and bad decisions or whether she will find a happy ending. I hope her bath meant rebirth rather than death – and that something good could happen even in a polluted world.

Annie Lord is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Vice, Dazed, i-D and Little White Lies.