It’s rare for a teen TV drama to tackle mental illness, and rarer still that it manages to do so with both sensitivity and a sense of humour.
That’s why the new E4 series My Mad Fat Diary, which started tonight, marks a genuine highpoint in the way mental illness is represented on screen.
The show tells the story of Rae, a music and boys obsessed sixteen year old who is preparing to leave the mental health ward where she’s been living for the past four months to go back into the “real world”.
Working for a mental health charity, I approached with some trepidation. If you’ve seen the trailer for the show, you could be forgiven for expecting some kind of fusion of Skins and the Carry On films set in an adolescent psychiatric unit. The title, too, has unfortunate echoes of sensationalist, voyeuristic shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
But what followed was a surprisingly honest, funny and even moving account of what it’s like for a teenage girl to live with serious mental health problems, free of many of the clichés that often inform how mental illness is portrayed on TV.
There is a strong sense of gallows humour in the show which is evident from its opening five minutes. As Rae steels herself to leave hospital, her friend in the ward complains that she’s being “left behind with the all the mentals”. Later, when Rae bumps into an old school friend, she discovers that her mum has told everyone she’s been on holiday in France. Her response - “Well, I had to tell them something love”.
Some might baulk at mental illness being discussed in such blunt terms, but there is also something refreshing about the issue being handled without kid gloves. The show jokes about mental illness without being glib, and feels much more true to life by avoiding worthiness.
It’s also a pleasing contrast to how mental health problems are normally portrayed in teen dramas. More often than not, the character with mental illness can be seen crouched in the corner of their room with their head in their hands, or being overtly “crazy” and kooky. Or, even worse, they are shown looming threateningly in the background.
But My Fat Mad Diary avoids these caricatures, and in the process it normalises mental illness. Rae is a hugely likeable character that people will find it easy to empathasise with – smart, funny and spiky. Like any other sixteen year old, she is trying to navigate the vicissitudes of adolescence – worrying about making friends, daydreaming about the opposite sex, fretting about her appearance and living in a permanent state of embarrassment.
She has a mental illness, but it doesn’t define her. It’s just something that she has to deal with and try to manage on a daily basis, just like the one in ten young people in the UK who have a mental illness. You sympathise with her because you like her, not because her mental illness makes her an object of pity.
Nor is the show dismissive of the tough realities of mental illness. When Rae has a panic attack on leaving the psychiatric unit, her anxiety and discomfort are palpable in a very real and visceral way. A particularly mortifying scene involving Rae being stranded on a high street in a bikini nearly prompts a full relapse, with Rae admitting “There’s too much out there...I’m not strong enough to deal with it on my own”. At times, she yearns for the safety and routine of the hospital ward, and it’s clear how difficult it is for her make her way in the outside world.
Many of the awkward scenarios Rae faces will be familiar to other teens who’ve had to navigate serious mental illness. How can Rae explain to friends where she’s been for the past four months? How can she explain the self-harm scars?
These moments make for uncomfortable viewing, but for many it will feel incredibly real. The programme makers also score points in their delicate handling of these issues, without being overly graphic or melodramatic.
That’s not to say the show is perfect. Because Rae is such a likeable character, you naturally want things to work out in her favour, and, in the first episode at least, they generally do. Whether or not this is realistic is a different matter.
For example, Rae’s new friends hardly react at all when they see her scars for the first time. It’s hard to imagine the same situation unfolding in real life without a little more awkwardness, or someone asking “what the hell happened to you?”.
But this is a minor quibble – it’s an E4 show not gritty social realism. Instead, My Mad Fat Diary strikes a good balance between humour and some sharp and very real observations about mental illness.
Rather than reinforcing negative stereotypes, I think the show is a breath of fresh air and will do a lot to change the way young people think about mental health. For many teenagers who have experiences similar to Rae’s, it will be gratifying to see those issues played out on mainstream TV.
I’ve got a feeling My Mad Fat Diary will spark conversations about mental illness in schools, parks and pubs across the country, and that can only be a good thing.