Euphoria and Mental Health Pt.1: Glitz, Glamour and GHB/How Euphoria Changed The Discussion on Mental Health
**Note, this post does not talk about SUD, Rue Bennett, or Nate and Maddy’s cycles of abuse as that will be touched on in future posts
Euphoria is one of the most highly-Tweeted-about shows of all time, and, like many other shows touching on mental health issues and mental illness, triggered worldwide mass discussion of these issues due to the explicit and controversial material shown.
For example, on Reddit, there were discussions as to whether or not the portrayals of mental health in the show were truly accurate. One Redditor said: “[The show] captured exactly, at least for me, with absurd accuracy what a panic attack is like.” Another said the show was challenging to watch because some scenes were quite triggering.
However, Euphoria is still as addictive as ever, and clinical neuropsychologist Kendal Maxwell, Ph.D provides insight into it, saying that it can acts as an “escape” from our current reality.
“Individuals are drawn to high-intensity shows for several reasons, with one being to escape real-life stress. If we watch something that is worse than our current stressful scenario, our life will feel less stressful in comparison…High anxiety shows can be mistaken in the brain with excitement, which releases similar chemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine. The former is associated with the reward center of our brain.”
Dr. Michelle Solomon, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, adds onto the hypothesis, saying, “Euphoria slams viewers with adrenaline-rushing elaborate motion shots, mood music, emotional blasts, and human trauma. Overexposure to such content for a growing brain can leave a neurological impression.”
And when addressing the various cliffhangers and tense moments in the show, Dr Solomon says, “Viewers want to know how [the show] ends; they want to see a resolution. Human beings naturally seek happy endings. We pursue closure, and we want to know that everything will be okay.”
“Watching disturbing content can elicit the fight-or-flight mechanism that was once used by cavemen for everyday events like, you know, fighting bears. Without mindful awareness, our nervous system does not know the difference between a perceived and actual threat.”
The addictiveness of this show can be worrying, however, especially with the increasingly stigmatizing mental health language used all over social media.
Gen Z has often glamorized various mental health issues, and Euphoria is not immune to this response. On Tiktok, many trends involving snorting fake drugs have popped up after the newest season came out, and some were seen romanticising the torturous, abusive relationships in the show.
With the glitz and glamor and glittery makeup that pervades the show, it’s very easy for Gen Z to get caught up in the beauty and forget that it is a show centered around mental illness. Though Euphoria is an amazing show, many of the actions carried out may be dangerous, and should not be imitated.
HOWEVER, Euphoria does quite a few things that are to be praised.
Zendaya specifically stated the dangers of romanticizing the show: https://www.instagram.com/p/CYhwfTgv2vG/?hl=en
And each episode of Euphoria ends with mental health resources: https://drive.google.com/file/d/18a7vCWdKTaLwbes_PllR9e7HB650n6T4/view?usp=sharing
They even have a resource website, https://www.hbo.com/euphoria/resources , which includes a Crisis Text Line, where a crisis counselor can help the texter with any triggering themes and moments, and links to the Trevor Project and many other resources for mental health.
Euphoria and Mental Health Pt.2: Cycles of Abuse
Nate Jacobs and Maddy Perez, the two characters that make up the secondary couple on the show, constitute the epitome of a toxic relationship. They both commit problematic actions, causing their relationship to be increasingly unhealthy while still convincing both themselves and others that this is somehow, love.
This trope, also seen in shows like You (2018), and movies like Fear (1996), is continuously romanticized throughout social media, but is extremely dangerous, normalizing these violent, unhealthy behaviors and causing young, impressionable children to increasingly accept violence in relationships.
In fact, research has demonstrated that the media actually reinforces sexist stereotypes that associate the male identity with violence, domination, independence, aggression and power, whereas women are linked to emotions, vulnerability, dependency and sensitivity.
In particular, news reports of violence against women tend to represent women as victims and as responsible for the violence that they are inflicted by, and the perpetrators or abusers are not as often blamed.
During the Domestic Violence Awareness Month in 2013, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board actually found that media that normalized violent behaviors such as stalking and intense fights leading the public to actually start viewing those graphic material as romantic and normal aspects of relationships. This is due to media being a construction of individual “values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structure of the larger society”.
The most memorably abusive characterisation of the relationship is in the Carnival episode of the show. When Maddy wears revealing clothing in front of Nate’s family, he berrates Maddy, and tries to control her, asking her to change into something more modest. When she lashes out and embarrasses Nate’s family, he becomes violent, slamming her into a wall and choking her.
This scene is universally acknowledged as abusive, as Euphoria condemns Nate’s behavior; Maddy being swarmed with social concern, and Nate being arrested for his actions, clearly showing that this behavior is unacceptable.
However, Maddy’s reaction in the show has also been said to be very accurate to those in abusive relationships. When the truth about Nate’s abuse is exposed, Maddy’s mother attempts to warn her against Nate, but Maddy responds by lashing out and claiming their love is true, yelling “All love looks different”, and that’s why their relationship is just so toxic.
The scene displays not only that Maddy has been surely and completely desensitized by the abuse, but also how unhealthy relationships can not only negatively affect the victim, but it also affects those around them, even further isolating the victim.
In season two, in the seemingly final interaction between Nate and Maddy, he holds Maddy at gunpoint in order to get the tape of Jules back. Maddy doesn’t stand down, however, seemingly already used to the violent physical abuse, and Nate then points the gun at his own head, threatening his life. This common used technique by many abusers- threatening suicide as a coercive measure, often to persuade their partner to stay- and Maddy quickly breaks down.
Maddy shares with Cassie that her cycle of domestic abuse is "just beginning”. Maddy finally sees that Cassie’s relationship with Nate mirrors hers, and fully accepts that Nate’s actions are not loving, but abusive. But it also offers insight on how, even if victims are completely self-aware about their abuse, they find it incredibly difficult to leave.
However, Euphoria also shows us that abuse, like in most real-life cases, actually stem from preexisting abuse. Nate’s difficult childhood experiences and broken familial relationships are fully fleshed out, giving some insight as to why his behavior is as it is, but, thankfully, does not excuse him for actively choosing to be abusive.
In the last episode of Euphoria, Nate’s dad finally says "I love you" to Nate, after subjecting him to years of abuse and trauma. These words come way too late, and the cycle of abuse has already continued with Nate- Nate himself even acknowledges this, saying, "WE BOTH GET OFF ON HURTING OTHER PEOPLE”.
However, with this, he hands his father over to the cops, even after hiding and indirectly supporting his father’s actions from afar throughout both seasons. While this definitely negate his crimes of being a horrible, abusive boyfriend, we can at least see hope for many others in relationships such as Nate; that these cycles can be broken, slowly but surely.
Euphoria and Mental Health Pt.3: Euphoria's Rue Bennett: The Good, Bad and Ugly
If you’ve been on social media lately, you will have heard of Zendaya, and she plays the protagonist of Euphoria, Rue Bennett. Rue battles SUD (Substance Use Disorder) alongside the various emotional turmoils and co-occurring mental illnesses she faces in her life. (She was diagnosed with OCD and Bipolar Disorder as a young girl in the show)
It is accurate, as the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that those with SUD and a co-occurring mental illness include over 7.9 million adults worldwide.
The U.S. Department of Justice also reports that Gen Z has a higher risk for addiction, with “90% of substance use disorders (SUDs) starting during the teenage years.” That is not the only thing that makes Euphoria’s depiction of SUD accurate, though.
On Reddit, many with SUDs started discussing the show, generally agreeing that it was an accurate portrayal but having equal amounts of positive and negative reactions towards it.
A user wanted to note the detrimental effect of SUDs on peoples’ lives, saying: “If you think addiction is glamorous then you haven’t seen addiction.”
In addition, in Season 2, Episode 5, when Rue’s relapse was revealed to her family, causing a wild police chase and Rue running into a seemingly predatory drug dealer’s home, there was a consensus that Euphoria did a great job of not romanticizing SUD. (https://twitter.com/AkilahObviously/status/1490517301627539459)
The episode clearly demonstrated the lengths those with SUD will go to stay high, with Rue even narrating how she feels when high (her brain stops, unable to think) and that she will chase that secure, safe feeling no matter what. The show also illustrates how those with mental illness have a warped mind, with less self-control and resolve, so with the right trigger (for example, when Jules leaves her), Rue falls back into her old, unhealthy habits.
A student, Shelbi, said that she hopes Rue’s relapse scene will remind viewers about the “ugly truths” of addiction and perhaps encourage them away from it.
While Redditors often commented they were sad they could relate to specific scenes or that it was challenging to watch the show, they praised the way drug use and how the various nuances of SUD were accurately depicted.
However, many others had negative reactions:
“Recovering addict and alcoholic here, it was a bit triggering for me and I kind of wish I had watched it with someone I trusted…” (This comment believed the depiction of SUD was way too graphic)
https://www.reddit.com/r/euphoria/comments/c7zv9q/comment/esjtd5z/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3 (This comment believed the portrayal of withdrawal was inaccurate)
However, Euphoria does not villainize having SUD. Rue is shown to be just an ordinary girl, with a loving family, who was merely dealt a poor set of cards. This is the case for many with SUD. They are never intentionally malicious or mean-spirited, and they face the same struggles and problems you do. They merely did not have an opportunity to seek true help, and thus turned to drugs to cope.
A great reason why the portrayal of SUD is so good is that the creator, Sam Levinson, actually personally went through substance abuse and addiction.
Sources for all three parts:
Drug Alcohol Depend.“This show hits really close to home on so many levels”: An analysis of Reddit comments about HBO’s Euphoria to understand viewers’ experiences of and reactions to substance use and mental illness. Michelle R. Kaufman, PhD, Alicia T. Bazell, Anne Collaco, MPH, and João Sedoc, PhD
Michael Elasmar, Kazumi Hasegawa & Mary Brain (1999) The portrayal of women in U.S. prime time television, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43:1, 20-34, DOI: 10.1080/08838159909364472
McGhee, P.E., Frueh, T. Television viewing and the learning of sex-role stereotypes. Sex Roles 6, 179–188 (1980). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00287341
Thompson, T. L., & Zerbinos, E. (1995). Gender roles in animated cartoons: Has the picture changed in 20 years? Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 32(9-10), 651–673. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01544217
Kohlman S, Baig A, Balice G, DiRubbo C, Placencia L, et al. Contribution of Media to the Normalization and Perpetuation of Domestic Violence. Austin J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2014;1(4): 1018. ISSN: 2381-9006.
Funk JB, Baldacci HB, Pasold T, Baumgardner J. Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: is there desensitization? J Adolesc. 2004; 27: 23-39.
Garcia MM. Voices from the Field: Stalking. NIJ Journal. 2010; 266: 14-15.
Nettelton PH. Domestic violence in men's and women's magazines: Women are guilty of choosing the wrong men, men are not guilty of hitting women. Womens Studies in Communication. 2011; 2: 139-160.
Kaufman MR, Bazell AT, Collaco A, Sedoc J. "This show hits really close to home on so many levels": An analysis of Reddit comments about HBO's Euphoria to understand viewers' experiences of and reactions to substance use and mental illness. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2021 Mar 1;220:108468. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108468. Epub 2020 Dec 20. PMID: 33540349; PMCID: PMC8183393.