When a teenager spends seven hours a day in school, counselors can find themselves helping with mental health issues that, for some students, may include thoughts of suicide.
Mary Ann Whalen, psychologist at Bloomington High School, said teachers are trained to follow a crisis response plan if an at-risk student is identified.
“The plan addresses how to respond to students in crisis, not only during the school day but after hours as well. We are here to help, listen, offer hope and help them put one foot in front of the other,” said Whalen.
After the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” gained popularity with teens earlier this year, Whalen was concerned by the show’s portrayal of mental health professionals.
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The show, based on a popular novel by Jay Asher, follows a high school student through a spiral of depression spurred by bullying. The series shows the graphic suicide of the teen, after she lists the 13 reasons why she made the decision to kill herself.
“The story generally portrayed (school) staff as being ineffective in helping, and bystanders did little or nothing to help, leaving the impression of hopelessness. Our concern involved the graphic nature of the story and how it might impact our most vulnerable youth, particularly students who may already be experiencing the same anguish as the main character,” said Whalen.
If an at-risk student is identified at school by a teacher or peer, Whalen said counselors jump into action to offer guidance.
“We want our students to know that suicide is not the solution and they can feel better with intervention and support,” she said.
Confiding in a close teacher is what pulled Jordyn Washer out of the darkness of depression and self-harming when she was 15. Washer, of Chicago, is now a senior at Illinois State University.
“I was diagnosed with depression at the end of my sophomore year (in high school). It was pretty bad. I had a history of cutting,” said Washer.
One day, she struggled to find the willpower to attend classes, so Washer went straight to the school counselor.
“We spoke and she called in another counselor and we decided I could leave school early,” she said.
The next day, Washer was admitted to an outpatient center to strengthen her mental health. From there, her outlook brightened. She is studying psychology and talks about her experience with depression in hopes of motivating others to seek help.
To teens grappling with depression or suicidal thoughts, Washer urged, “Don’t hold it in.”
“Even if there’s one teacher or adult you really feel comfortable confiding in, tell that one person. Even my closest friends didn’t understand it to the fullest extent, but holding it in and not saying anything is what’s going to get you,” she said.
Shortly after being diagnosed with depression, Washer read “13 Reasons Why.”
“The book resonated with me. It gave me validation that this is an actual thing and I wasn’t going crazy. It made me want to talk about the subject,” she said.
Washer watched the Netflix series, when she said her mind was in a healthier place.
“I struggled for half an hour after watching the last episode. Part of me wanted to give in to being sad again. I had to tell myself, ‘You’re fine. You’re not going back down that path,’” she said.
If her 15-year-old self had watched the show while depressed, Washer said “there’s a chance it could’ve made things worse.”
“As long as you’re in a healthy head space, I still think it’s one of those shows everyone should watch if they can. It opens up a whole other room of conversation starters and raises awareness.”
“13 Reasons Why” is expected to return to Netflix in 2018.
A teen’s reaction to the show could be “a real mixed bag” said Liz Hamilton, community project coordinator for BN Parents, a community-led group that encourages open conversation between parents and teenagers about substance abuse and mental health.
“When you look at the content and the emotional impact it can have on a teen, you see how stressful it can be for them to grapple with those issues, especially without a sounding board,” said Hamilton. “It can also be an opportunity to open the door to conversation.”
If teens show interest in the show, Hamilton encouraged parents to join their child on the couch to watch the episodes together.
“It’s best to not assume you have control over your child. The priority is to maintain a strong relationship with your adolescent. Be more inquisitive than judgmental and lecturing,” she said.
If a teen already has watched the show or read the book, Hamilton said parents should use the themes to discuss depression and alcohol abuse, something heavily portrayed in the series.
Parents who suspect their teen may be suicidal or depressed should “address it head on,” said Hamilton, and keep the teen in the decision-making process about how to get help.
“We want teens to understand it’s very normal to experience sadness and those feelings can become overwhelming,” said Hamilton. “Let them know these things will pass and be a reassuring sounding board.”