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MTV’s “True Life” Aims to Educate Young People About Social Issues

TrueLifeMTV’s award-winning “True Life” program features episodes on a variety of social issues young people confront, including alcoholism, addictions, and sexuality.

Executive producer Betsy Forhan said the creators of “True Life” want to educate teenagers and young adults about these issues in a subtle way and help them find solutions.

Instead of a narrator, program creators hope viewers follow real people in program episodes and learn from their successes and failures. The program’s targeted audience is aged 18 to 24.

“What has helped us is that we keep finding fresh stories that resonate with young people,” Forhan said. “We are not preaching. We are not putting (them) in a voice of authority that kids don’t like.”

“True Life” first aired in 1998 and  filmed more than 140 episodes. It has won numerous awards, including the 2009 Emmy Award for Best Special Class Series and the 2005 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary.

Forhan does not know whether any executives who worked on the show have ties to social work. However, MTV Chairman and CEO Judy McGrath said in a 2005 interview that her parents were social workers who gave her “a real sense of social responsibility.” Forhan also said one of the show creators, Banks Tarver, was a civil rights attorney before he became a documentarian and she has psychologists in her family.

“We absolutely see the value social workers play in people’s lives,” Forhan said. “But because we’re a documentary series we can’t suggest our characters reach out to social workers. We follow them wherever their search for help may lead them.”

“True Life” has featured episodes on serious topics including “I’m Hooked on Oxycontin,” “I Have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” and “I’m Out, “an episode about gay and lesbian young people who are revealing their sexual identity to family and friends. The show also features more light-hearted fare, including “Camp’d Out: I’m Going to Performing Arts Camp.”

Most of the show ideas come from producers and documentary filmmakers, said Forhan, who has worked for MTV for 18 years.

The new season of “True Life” will premiere Monday, March 15, 2010 at 10 p.m. Eastern, she said. Producers think the first episode of the new season will be “I Need a Transplant,” although that could change, Forhan said.

“At heart, we just want to tell great stories,” she said.


Social workers deal each day with many of the issues highlighted on “True Life.”  Executive Producer Betsy Forhan invited social workers to submit episode ideas, because social workers may be aware of unnoticed social trends. The program also wants to consult with experts, including social workers, she said. So if you know of an engaging social topic you want the show to cover email “True Life” Associate Producer Hannah Wurzel at

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  1. Domestic Violence… After all these events with rihanna and chris brown…people need to understand how hard it is for DV victims to escape their perpetrator

  2. Immigration reform- we need it. Also many of the typical stereotypes about undocumented workers are so far from the truth. For instance, many people think undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes, are on welfare, and commit most of the crime. Show how minute men crush bottles of water when human beings, many children, need that water to survive! Show that our immigration laws are not the same for each country. For instance, compare Mexico to Canada. The laws are different! Many undocumented immigrants were brought to the US as children and this is all they know. They are not familiar with there “home” land but are at risk of deportation & miss out on opportunities. This is a huge social issue for our nation.

  3. Teaching young people how to exist on a young person’s salary, I mean break it down into little steps–lessons on all kinds of stuff they may not have learned–the Martha Stewart version of how-to’s. Budgeting, saving at grocery shopping, car maintainence–kind of like a version of The Modern Girl’s Guide to Life that used to be on television.

  4. I have had the opportunity to watch MTV’s “True Life”, various episodes (ie. OCD, Tourette’s, Complusive Shopping, Teen Mom, etc,) and I have been impressed with the various episodes. Hopefully, these shows will help educate teens and others about a variety of “True Life Issues” and I believe the Media is a good resource and can be used for positive influences and education.

    I would like to see topics on Major Depression, Teen Suicide, Domestic Violence, to name a few.

  5. (A “True Life” episode idea). What about “True Life: I’m a social worker”?

  6. I watch that show all the time and I love it and Dr. Drew sex therapy.

  7. It would be nice if they did something on teen pregnancy that didnt glamorize it.

  8. Sorry, but I can’t imagine MTV putting together anything worth watching anymore.

  9. How about encouraging teens to accept their parents and other authority figures not as foes or heroes, but people who have weakness and make mistakes. People who continue to struggle to with their own demons but want to make a difference. In other words, set a frame work for empathy.

  10. What about a show that addresses bi-polar disorder. The onset of bi-polar disorder tends to land right in the teen years (and early 20’s), and is often missed and under-diagnosed. Teens with bi-polar disorder (especially girls) tend to live for years without knowing what is going on, and become isolated from friends and even family.

    I think it would be very helpful to address this, and to educate the public in general.

    Also addressing schizophrenia as well…that would be good. This is another under-diagnosed, and misunderstood behavioral health issue.

  11. How about divorce and children being put in the middle of their parents disagreements and issues.

  12. What about featuring youth who have aged out of foster care? They face a lot of challenges concerning relationships, finances, housing, jobs, and education, and they often do it with very little support. Many of them struggle, and many of them are successful despite their struggles. It might help both these youth and their friends to learn to be more understanding and supportive of these individuals. These are the youth I work with–and I admire them greatly!

    Other options include featuring youth re-entering society after incarceration, or youth who live or have lived in a residential care facility. Or, children of immigrant parents who have not learned English, etc., or maybe children of migrant workers. Homeless youth or youth experiencing prostitution (forced or not) could be very educational. Featuring a wider variety of youth with mental health diagnoses would also help.

    This is my area–I am full of ideas! I applaud MTV for using their platform to educate.

  13. I agree with Jessica, topics like Major Depression, Domestic Violence, Teen Suicide and Sexual Trauma/PTSD have to be discussed more. I think teens tend to glorify these things and not truly see the real impact it has on their lives nor their families lives. I assess teens in emergency rooms every week who have attempted suicide and it’s devastating to see the sadness and hopelessness in their eyes. The events that you are willing to end your life over, put them in perspective. We have to view events in the big scheme of life, stop focusing so much on the tiny little moments that in the end will seem so insignificant.

  14. I would like to see something done on people with visual impairments. This will include those who are blind and visually impaired. I’m a social work graduate student with a visual impairment and because I don’t fit into what some people would imagine a visually impaired person look like, I’m often over looked for services etc. I wear both contact lenses and glasses often at the same time, in order to see well enough to do school work, but there are still challenges in the work place and at school that I face on a day to day basis. I would like to see both sides of visually impaired people looked at, those with no sight and those who are partially sighted. For example, I see well enough not to bump into furniture, locate classes on my own and read from a text book. However, I do not see well enough to drive, see the chalk board from the front row, read font smaller then 12 fonts, or recognize faces from a distance. Situations such as these, can pose a challenge for individuals who are partially sighted, but because we blend in with everyone else, our needs are often overlooked.

    I have watched true life through out the years and I would really like to see more people be aware of the challenges that all visually impaired people face, not just those who are blind.

    Karmen Foshee-Fuller
    MSW Student

  15. Thanks for asking actual Social Workers for advice. It would be nice if any of the ideas make it to an episode, they should include information about the social work profession, our education and licensing information and all the things that social workers can do.

    Some ideas for episodes would be, body image and eating disorders- so much focus in the media (MTV included) is on youth, beauty and size. A discussion about healthy lifestyles is important and the underlying issues for those who either over-eat or over-diet. Kids have so much pressure, a story about the negative effects of eating disorders may open some eyes.

    Also, I agree with the person who talked about domestic violence. Those issues often get swept under the rug and not talked about, a story about someone who has been abused, physically, emotional or financially by a partner may help girls that don’t realize it can happen to them too. The mistreatment of women is unacceptable, more needs to be done to show this to young girls, not only in regard to violence against women, but also the disrespect of women. Proper treatment of all human beings regardless of race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, size and disability needs to be taught to the young people of America.

    I’m also always outraged at violence from young people, I know it’s been done before, but a show reminding them of the consequences of violent and illegal actions not only on themselves but those they care about it always necessary. Kids can get caught up in gangs or other illegal activities so easily and they forget that the possibility of jail time can ruin their chance at a life and also can hurt their families.

    Thanks for listening.

  16. I am a high school social worker and I hink it would be wonderful for MTV to acknowledge the problems that teens have been facing with “sexting”. Many of my students have had their lives litterally ruined due to messages or images they have texted and I know this is a trend that is affecting schools and students nationwide. This topic has recently received national attention for students being arrested for violating child pornography laws as well as teens committing suicide after being bullied following the forwarding of personal text messages.

  17. I would like to see an episode which addresses the stigmas associated with mental health. More specifically, I would like to see an episode which discusses the stigmas of being homeless in America. As a former caseworker for the homeless population of Lancaster County, PA, I worked to find affordable housing for the consumers on my caseload. Most received SSI money, which is less than $700/month. Very few landlords will rent to someone only making $700/month. In addition, as a result of being homeless, many individuals have poor credit and/or criminal and/or drug and/or mental health problems. This episode should include an in depth look at the conditions of many homeless shelters, and the ridiculous standards for those shelters associated with Christianity, which are normally some of the “nicer” shelters, which force individuals to attend nightly prayer, and if they do not, they will be “kicked out”. Many Americans seem to have this “warm & fuzzy” feeling towards the “needy”, as they refer to people, as if we all are not in need of something. However, this warm and fuzzy feeling only seems to occur during the holidays, when it seems just right not to be an ass__ to the homeless. I mean seriously, why is it that we seem to think that the only thing homeless people need is food? We are the most obese nation, but food is NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER! Please also include, in this episode, a bit about the lack of educational opportunities available to homeless individuals, and how while we have homeless assistance programs for rent and food, that many have extremely long (sometimes 5 years) waiting lists, and many have been cut due to “the economy”, as we all like to refer to it. I find it ironic that in a good economy, we seem to have money for people “in need,” but in a bad economy, it’s like we say, sorry, your on your own! I think the major focus of this episode should be about Mental Health, and our nation’s stigmas towards it, while almost 50% will or have already experienced mental health symptoms in a life time. We need a mental health overhaul! We live in the richest country in the world, and therefore should not have the largest homeless population in the world!

  18. True Life should have topics that are real to young adults. I am a young adult and i feel that health care is a huge issue. I feel that the topic on this show should be “I Have No Health Insurance”. This affects millions of people, young adults and older adults, and it is also affecting our younger generations because they do not have the ability to go to the hospital to just have a check up. I really feel that you can find alot of people that would be willing to show the world how they truly live daily without having any insurance. They would be able to explain how they live day to day.
    Another topic would be “I AM A Victim of Child Abuse” Good luck on your show.

  19. How about a episode on what it is like to be a homeless teenager. I run a shelter for homeless families and it is extremely difficult for the teenagers in the shelter. They are dealing with being embarassed about where they live while still trying to live a “normal” life. It is usually not their fault they became homeless, but they are the ones dealing with the stigma attached.

  20. I would love to see an episode about teen bullying; specifically Girls Bullying. This is a huge problem that often occurs without any physical violence (although that does happen too). Most frequently, it is verbal and emotional abuse and torture which can make the bully-ee absolutely terrified to go to school and can make the bully-er feel horrible because they’re often not even sure why they’re bullying. This would be an excellent topic to explore.

    I also agree with Gayle Elliot above – an episode on teaching teens about finances and how to survive on a budget would be very valuable. So many kids don’t learn these things and then end up struggling and suffering as adults because they never learned the basics along the way.

    Look forward to seeing which idea(s) make the cut!

    Thank you!

  21. I would like to see episodes that discuss the above suggestions as well as

    -relationship/sexual violence in teens
    -growing up in poverty
    -institutional racism
    -a survivor of childhood abuse or children currently in fostercare
    -success stories of the legislation No Child Left Behind. Good Luck finding them! and that is the point. How the current educational system is failing our students.

  22. It would be beneficial to see a program about foster care youth aging out of the system and the challenges they face from the fears, elatedness, and frustrations these young adults have expressed about being on their own. Most young adults receiving clinical services (also known as clinical therapy) are those involved in the foster care system and/or juvenile dependency system (DJJ) who are learning to cope with being independent and realizing that they have to take personal responsibility on the issues they face.

    I have read other comments and believe (also evidenced based research has proven this to be a factor in the outcome of youth exiting the foster care system) that other issues these young adults face including but not limited to homelessness, victims of domestic violence and other crimes. These youths also have a pattern of legal charges, cycle of violence, and/or lack of social competency. In other words they become a product of their environment and thus maximizing their outcome of becoming a statistic and repeating the cycle to their children.

    For these reasons and more, I have started a non-profit agency called Teenage Mentoring, Inc. to help address these issues and concerns. At some point during treatment or process of aging out of foster care, these young adults express that they feel ill-prepared to be independent and deal with the fact they their support system is limited to their ability to interact and socialize in a society that has norms and ideologies that they have yet to master.

    Having a MTV true life show geared to youth aging out of foster care, will can be a very a diverse population because the youths in foster care have many possible outcomes including:
    1. Pregnant teens aging out
    2. Homeless and aging out
    3. substance abuser and aging out
    4. going back home after aging out
    5. Aging out and mentally ill
    6. Aging out and going to college
    7. Packing up and starting over because of aging out
    8. Who am I after aging out
    9. Moving on after aging out- What’s next?
    10. Aging out with HIV

  23. What about an episode on cutting and self mutilation? It may be a bit graphic, but it seems to be a growing problem among adolescents and young adults. The episode should address ways people who cut can find different ways to cope with feelings, etc

  24. Although this article was written somewhat “tongue-in-cheek,” the trend seems to be rising (possibly in relation to aging baby boomers who don’t want to grow up, and are vicariously attempting to recapture their unresolved teen years…), but it can be really deleterious to families:—Why-You-Are-Not-Your-Teens-BFF&id=3301956

    (in case the link doesn’t work:)

    “Parents–Why You Are Not Your Teen’s BFF” @

  25. Although this may be an informative and educational television program I cannot support MTV in any way. I am seriously disturbed by some of the things I see on MTV, ie. (Jersey Shore). As a Social Worker I cannot identify my self with the values and morals being portrayed to children and teenagers by MTV. I agree with one of the bloggers above, I cannot imagine anything truly worthwhile coming from this.

  26. I’ve watched True Life for years, and have always wanted to see episodes that address the following…

    Being a non-traditional college student (single parents, those with no family support, those that do not fit the “image” of a college student
    Young adults involved with Child Protective Services
    Graduation, now what?

  27. I work with children ages 3-young adult in the area of social skills. One thing I’ve noticed is that there is very little out there regarding Asperger’s and how it manifests differently in girls then in boys. Every day teens are in contact with peers who have the characteristics and they are seen as “weird” or “quirky” or “unfriendly”. it would be great if all children and teens understood the disorder and how to forge a relationship with someone with Asperger’s, and help them to achieve social success.

  28. Hello
    All the topics are good, but a focus should also be on the emotional attachment/separation that teenagers face while in foster care. Many have desires to age out of care at the age of seventeen only to find a connection with their birth parents/relatives. My husband and I have been foster parents for nearly five years to mostly teens. We have our first teen male in the home at this time and he has emotional issues that causes him to feel as though the world is against him. Many are angry and hurt; therefore they destroy themselves with drugs, sex and academic failure. There have been over nine teens in our home that disrupted placement(s) to return to their biological family. When they returned they found sadness, emptiness and hardship because the family made empty promises. My husband and I continue to be emotional supporters to them and encourage them through their journey. As a Social worker and a chapter chair for the State of Texas I encourage this segment so parents can realize how their behavior affects their offsprings success and/or failures in life.

  29. I agree with some of the above ideas:

    One of the above ideas-True Life: I’m a social worker could be one idea that may cover a couple of topics. Maybe make it a 2 hour season premiere or season finale…and again it could cover some of the important topics that may not have been touched no yet such as teen suicide and children who have been abused/ in foster care. It can also show that social workers are a professional group not to be confused with “caseworkers”, “case managers”, “drug and alcohol counselors”, “guidance counselors”, etc.

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