HBO's New Series "Euphoria" Tackles Teen Drug Abuse, Addiction, and Mental Health

rue addiction in euphoria

Sex. Drugs. Anxiety. Social media. Addiction. Parties. Violence. Overdose. Teenagers.

These are some of the many themes present in HBO’s new series, “Euphoria,” which has stirred much controversy since the pilot episode aired in June 2019. Many critics feel that “Euphoria” is too raw, too graphic, and too provoking for a young audience. At the same time, the show is almost meant to be this way: an honest, raw, and thought-provoking depiction of teens’ experiences today – with drugs and alcohol, with mental health struggles, with the pressures of social media, with relationships, and simply with figuring out who they are and where they “belong.” But do the creators of “Euphoria” get it right?

In many aspects, they do. According to the show’s creator, Sam Levinson, the scenes and events that happen in “Euphoria” are based off of his own experiences as a teen. Now 34-years-old, Levinson struggled with substance addiction and depression during his younger years. He “got clean” at the age of 19, and has stayed sober since. He explains to Page Six, “It wasn’t easy. It’s still not easy.”

Teen Drug Abuse, Addiction, and Mental Health in “Euphoria”

We meet Rue – the main character of “Euphoria,” played by Zendaya – in the pilot episode, fresh out of rehab the summer before her Junior year in high school. Right away, we learn that she has struggled with mental illness throughout her childhood, and was constantly medicated as a child to alleviate the symptoms. It is alluded to that she suffers from bipolar disorder, anxiety, as well as OCD. As viewers, we hear Rue’s thoughts, we watch as she cannot fully escape them, and we break a little inside as she uses drugs (and continues to use them) as an escape. We break even further when she overdoses on drugs, and requires Narcan to stay alive.

For as long as Rue can remember, she has suffered from mental turmoil, emotional chaos, and has used some combination of substances to cope. When she was a young adolescent (maybe 13 years old), her father fell ill with cancer and she began experimenting with his opioid medication. The trauma of father passing, combined with her already-fragile mental state, created the perfect storm for her later drug abuse, addiction, and overdose as a teen.

Rue’s struggles with mental health and addiction are not uncommon. Her propensity to self-medicate with dangerous drugs – specifically painkillers – is not at all far-fetched. This is a reality that many young addicts face today, and as a result, something that many people battling a substance use disorder can relate to. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 8 million U.S. adults today are battling co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. 

Levinson’s goal with Rue’s character was to create more awareness and empathy around tough topics like substance addiction and mental health. As a former addict himself, he felt it was important to show the relief that drugs can bring to someone who suffers from anxiety or depression — as well as the pain and grief that they can create. He says to AP News, “Portraying [drug abuse] in an honest way is the best way to create empathy for addicts and their families, because I believe empathy is the only way that we can communicate.”

“I promise you. If I could be a different person, I would. Not because I want it, but because they do.” – Rue, pilot episode

The pain that comes with drug abuse, and the constant need to continue using drugs despite that pain, is portrayed very accurately in “Euphoria.” Drug addiction is a disease of the brain. It takes over a person’s ability to make rational decisions, to control impulse, and to think about long-term consequences. It changes the brain’s chemical make-up, particularly in adolescents whose brains are still developing. Already, many teenagers will do what they can to feel good, to feel better, or to fit in, without thinking so much about the negative consequences that might occur. Many live in the moment, which is why so many teenagers are using drugs today.

However, it is important to call out that teen drug use has declined in recent years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that, over the past five years, illicit teen drug use (with the exception of marijuana) has decreased 30 percent for high school seniors. These are the lowest illegal drug use levels in the past 20 years. Alcohol use is also at a low among tens. Under 10 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds have reported drinking alcohol in the past month, according to the CDC.

With these statistics in mind, “Euphoria” may be less relevant to Gen Z, which is a common concern among critics. Rather than increasing awareness about dangerous drug abuse and sexual activity, many are concerned that “Euphoria” will give Gen Z the notion it is okay to drink and use drugs, to have sex, and to be violent in relationships. These scenes may suggest to today’s adolescents that drugs, violence, and alcohol are also okay outlets to cope with anxiety, depression, and the other issues teens face.

At the same time, by highlighting these difficult issues, “Euphoria” encourages conversations among teens and adults. Former movie executive Yalda T. Uhls, who studies how media affects the behavior of adolescents, says that she’s watched episodes with her 19-year-old daughter and that the show has promoted very important conversations between them, that would not have happened otherwise.

Prior to the first season’s premiere, Zendaya tweeted a warning, noting that “Euphoria” was designed for mature audiences: “It’s a raw and honest portrait of addiction, anxiety and the difficulties of navigating life today.”

“Euphoria” also handles the subject of mental health with sincerity – not only the connection between mental health and addiction, but also the link between social media and mental health among teens today.

We know that in modern day, social media has become the norm. 95 percent of teenagers have access to a smartphone today, and nearly half say they use the internet “almost constantly.” They have Instagram, Snapchat, and other apps to communicate and scroll through on the day-to-day. Frankly, many young people (and adults) are addicted to their smartphones, and it can have a very negative impact on their mental health.

One of the most common reasons teens use drugs is because they feel a social pressure or the need to fit in. They want to be more popular, skinnier, or look and act like the models they see on their Instagram feeds. Dr. Barbara Nosal told INSIDER that she’s noticed teens are especially stressed, anxious, and depressed these days, and believes social media is the cause. Social media allows teens to more easily compare themselves to others whose lives are seemingly perfect. She explains, "Peer rejection, bullying, and self-esteem are linked into social media and teens are equating their worth to 'How many likes or friends do I have?'"

Teen suicide rates support this notion, even as substance use among teens has decreased. In children’s hospitals across the United States, hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts and attempts doubled from 2008 to 2015, according to a May 2018 study.

Social pressure. Pressure to use drugs. Pressure to look or act a certain way. Pressure to grow up fast.

These are all real issues that teens are facing today. Though they may not occur to the extent they do in “Euphoria,” the experiences of adolescents have changed and all this increased pressure has contributed to increased depression and decreased self-esteem in teens.

Mental health and drug abuse are difficult realities that our youth are facing today. If you or a loved one is in need of help, for drug addiction or a substance use disorder, know that there is help available. On the HBO website, “Euphoria” fans can find several resources for addiction and mental health support, including a crisis text line and links to support groups, health clinics, and suicide prevention organizations. You can also reach out to specialized teen treatment center, like Turnbridge, for guidance and support.

Turnbridge is an adolescent and young adult treatment center in Connecticut, helping young people overcome substance addiction and co-occurring mental disorders. To learn about our programs for young men and women, please contact 877-581-1793 today.