What we can learn from eighth grade’s anxiety-afflicted teen heroine

ALISSA SCHULMAN
27/07/18

“Sorry, sometimes I can be a little… I suffer from anxiety,” blurts Ariela Barer as Gert in the Season 1 finale of Marvel’s Runaways.

Fans immediately took to Twitter to praise the simplicity of the admission, one that made so much sense in retrospect, but hadn’t been stated in any of the nine previous episodes. “This meant so much to me for so many reasons,” one wrote.

Mental health awareness has been getting a lot of attention in pop culture lately, with depictions in TV shows, movies, and music. When they’re done well, these representations can blur the line between a story and real life — which is why they can be so powerful for those who suffer and so uncomfortable for those who don’t.

Take, for example, the controversy surrounding 13 Reasons Why. While some lauded the show as painfully relatable, others condemned it as dangerous and called for its cancellation following graphic scenes of sexual assault, suicide, and violence.

Despite the debate, the show’s cast and creators routinely insist they’re proud of the conversation the show has sparked. “I think ultimately what the show does really well is promote discussion,” star Katherine Langford told BuzzFeed News ahead of Season 2’s release, “and I think from discussion is where people are able to learn.”

She’s not wrong — getting a conversation started is “helpful,” Kevin Menasco, a therapist at Mountain Valley Treatment Center, told MTV News, but is that enough?

“It’s only going to open up conversations insofar as it’s an accurate representation of that population,” Menasco added, and statistically speaking, extreme cases of depression and anxiety brought on by a pile-up of bullying, harassment, and sexual violence isn’t the experience of most teens suffering from mental illness. Ultimately, he said, this representation can encourage us to “view mental health less on a spectrum of health and more in terms of black and white.”

Fortunately, more nuanced portrayals of mental health are becoming more common — in shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in books like John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down, and now, in Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, Eighth Grade, which perfectly outlines how we can be better allies to our anxious peers.

Much like Green setting out to write about the experience of life with OCD, Burnham “wanted to talk about anxiety—my own anxiety—and I was coming to grips with that,” he told the New Yorker, which, he later described, “[it] makes me feel like a terrified thirteen-year-old.”

The movie follows eighth grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she struggles to make friends, awkwardly talks to boys, obsessively scrolls through her Instagram feed and is, in general, “really, like, nervous all the time.”

But even though Burnham considers this to be a story about anxiety, the word never comes up in the movie, leaving that assessment up to the viewer — a practice in film and TV that “can be really positive,” Menasco said. “A diagnosis is not as significant or as important as the collection of symptoms, and I think that [the symptoms] are the things that people can relate to.”

Even more significantly, sympathizing with a character as she navigates through these emotional experiences and seeing how various interactions affect her can help prepare everyone to better empathize with these situations when they arise in real life.

For example, in the beginning of Eighth Grade, Kayla rejects her quiet reputation, telling her (dismal) YouTube audience, “I don’t talk a lot at school, but if people talked to me and stuff, they’d find out that I’m like, really funny and cool and talkative.”

As we see throughout the film, having her peers ignore her earnest attempts to make friends is one of Kayla’s most consistent insecurities, resulting in increased nerves on her end and thus making her peers even less interested in talking to her.

In order to avoid that real-life rejection, Kayla spends hours a day scrolling through social media, which, according to Menasco, can further inhibit the “social learning” we all need, while also allowing her to compare her lonely nights at home to the friend-filled weekends of her peers, leading to a “sense of inadequacy that maybe we aren’t doing enough or achieving enough or having a good enough life.” (Studies have shown that people who spend more than two hours a day on social media are more likely to feel socially isolated.)

It turns out, there’s an easy fix to break this cycle. “Just listen,” Jeanette Nogales, Associate Clinical Director of MVTC said. “Listen to people, listen to each other, and try and take a nonjudgmental stance and really be open to what they have to say.”

To illustrate, Kayla experiences an openness she hadn’t received from her classmates before with high schooler Olivia (Emily Robinson) as they chat about the transition from middle school to high school. When Olivia tells Kayla she “was a complete mess when I was your age,” the middle schooler’s relief is palpable, because for the first time, Kayla is realizing that maybe things can get better for her.

“We sometimes forget that everybody experiences anxiety in some form and it’s pretty normal to get anxious about things,” Nogales said. “There’s an important piece to [validating each other].”

Realistically, every teen who is suffering from anxiety probably knows someone else who is also suffering. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 30 percent of adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder. “So, if you go to school and say you have 30 people in your class, that means 7-10 of them are also struggling with anxiety in a very real way,” Dr. Shannon Bennett, Clinical Site Director of the New York-Presbyterian Youth Anxiety Center, translated.

But not every teen is as brave as Kayla is when she walks into a pool party she was barely invited to, knowing that she’d be subjected to glares that wondered, Why is she here?

The expectations could have inspired Kayla to feed her inclination to isolate herself — and they sort of did, with her posting up in an untouched edge of the pool. But then perky Gabe (Jake Ryan) swam over and challenged her to a breath-holding competition.

Unknowingly, Gabe did exactly what he needed to do to pull Kayla out of her shell. “People who are struggling with anxiety might not always reach out for support,” Nogales said, adding that prompting can really help a person open up.

Plus, being inquisitive can have a dual benefit. Noting that everyone experiences emotions and reacts to situations differently, Dr. Bennett said that asking questions is a “really helpful practice … so that we can broaden our view of how other people experience the world and know how best to help one another.”

Of course, all of this is not to say that we are obligated to help every person we think may be struggling, nor should anyone expect to be heard all the time. “That’s part of life,” MVTC’s Clinical Director Tim DiGiacomo said. “But we then as society can also make the choice every day to say, ‘Am I going to reach out to someone?’ … So I think it’s the little choices throughout the day.”

And eventually, all those little choices may result in big changes. It did for Kayla, who will enter ninth grade a little less, like, nervous all the time.