Content warning: suicide and mental illness. Click away to safety if you’d like to avoid reading about these issues. As always, know that if you’re having similar thoughts, there are people out there to help.
I’ll watch any show that’s about young people coming of age. Maybe it was my Degrassi upbringing, but I’ll always love a good high school drama. So when 13 Reasons Why came out, I gave it a go. It certainly was engrossing, but absolutely problematic when it came to dramatizing suicidal ideation and execution — in all it’s heavy and highly dramatized detail. I won’t go into what all the problems with the show were (others have done so very well), but I do want to call out an alternative. A really good alternative and one you may have missed if you’re outside of the U.K.
Streaming on Hulu (as of this publication in August 2017, and probably also on YouTube in perpetuity) is a show called My Mad Fat Diary. It’s the story of Rae Earl, a 1990s teen obsessed with music and love and everything normal teenagers are into. She’s also tried to hurt herself. It’s based on a real memoir by the author of the same name.
If you’re already raising your hand saying you’ve watched all three tiny seasons (damn youse, short UK shows!), then you already know what I’m going to say. If not, here’s why My Mad Fat Diary is a super solid portrayal of mental illness and suicidal ideation…
Real realness in real town
The show is set in the mid ’90s so you already know there’s going to be good music (albeit some replaced on Hulu due to rights issues), grunge fashion, and au naturel eyebrows for days. As someone who was exactly Rae’s age in that year, let me tell you it looks and feels accurate as hell. And as someone who has dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts as well, it feels real there, too. There’s no fake television veneer making anyone prettier, nicer, or more glamorous than they would have been in real life (props to British TV in general for that).
Rae looks like a real person and tells her stories in real ways. Fair warning for younger viewers, it’s raunchier than the usual American fare. There are other characters going through dramatically different types of mental illness with different consequences, but all feel plausible and not cliched. It normalizes mental illness by avoiding caricatures in favor of realistic, normal people who happen to have mental health issues. Rae is nuanced and her illness isn’t her only defining feature.
There’s no glossing over mental illness as one type of weepy depression wearing lots of makeup and wistfully staring out of a window. It’s realistically harsh words spoken in anger, acutely relatable depictions of despair when life attacks, elation, love, and searing friendship that will transport you to your own hormone-fueled high school fights.
Depression and how it lies
What’s missing from 13 Reasons Why is the fact that depression lies and there is help from many sides. Rae’s journey shows us how you absolutely can feel that there is no hope and the only way to save your family and friends from the burden of you is to get out. It’s unapologetic about how these feelings seem so valid and so right at the time.
But what we see in her story is that there’s an after scene — a scene where the worst is over and there’s hope on the other side. There’s always an after scene in everyone’s life. You may not be able to see it for yourself, but you can see it here, in someone else’s story.
Nobody saves her
Rae’s journey takes her to a place where nobody is going to run in to save her from herself. She has to find her own way and that lesson is clear to us as viewers. They don’t make it an easy or convenient process. Rae suffers, but she ultimately owns it and uses the tools she’s been given to claw her way to health. It’s hopeful and bittersweet and a touchstone for anyone dealing with their own demons telling them that there’s no hope.
Rae’s process also includes examples of communicating when you need support and why that is often the best track to take when you’re spiraling. This alone could be enough to help someone reach out when they need it.
I’ll keep bingeing on my teen television shows, both bad and good, but will always return to Rae and the gang and their wonderfully visceral depiction of my own high school time. I recommend you do, too.