We asked real high school psychologists to weigh in.
Parents, educators, and mental health professionals have all had about a month to catch up on 13 Reasons Why, the latest Netflix series to catch a substantial amount of buzz. As it seems likely the controversial show will be renewed for a second season, experts have continued to express concerns about its graphic depictions of rape and suicide—and its messaging about the latter, wondering if the show could possibly do more harm than good.
A common concern expressed among high school psychologists is that the show's revenge plot—the self-inflicted death of a student posthumously teased out over thirteen stories dedicated to the handful of people who wronged her—glorifies and sensationalizes suicide. I'd take that a step further and suggest the show romanticizes mental illness altogether.
There's something Tumblr-esque about the way Hannah Baker spoke of depression on her suicide tapes—her every thought poignant, her poetry profound and prophetic for a 17-year-old. She rarely ever seemed as lost as people who struggle with mental health issues in real life often are.
Research shows that exposure to another person's suicide (or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death) can be a risk factor that youth struggling with mental health conditions consider as a reason they contemplate suicide. Imagine how much higher that risk is for those who are possibly struggling—who watch this show and see thirteen problems and not a single solution.
But of all the show's frustrations, its most egregious one was its depiction of Mr. Porter, the school's counselor, stoically portrayed by Derek Luke. Mr. Porter was written within a trope perhaps more harmful than Hannah's "beautiful struggle," serving as a clueless, neglectful counselor who students avoided as a hall monitor more than they respected as a resource. Throughout the series, students of Liberty High were plagued by issues like bullying, harassment, gender-based violence, drug abuse, and unsafe home environments—yet they'd all scatter whenever Mr. Porter would walk by. Every tape, every episode. But it'd be unfair to think most high school counselors are as shitty as 13 Reasons Why portrayed Mr. Porter.
Teens dealing with depression and contemplating suicide deserve to see what that solution might look like. That's why I spoke to a few school psychologists about what patterns they're seeing in schools right now, and how they aim to be better at their grind than Mr. Porter.
Katie Jarratt, Highland High School, Salt Lake City, Utah
A high school counselor for 25 years.
How do students usually wind up in your office?
Lots of ways. Sometimes kids will come on their own. A lot of times a student will write something in an essay or something they had to do for an assignment, and the teacher will read it and get concerned and let us know. Many times I've had a kid's friend come to me, when the friend knows something is going on and they're concerned.
Once a student is in your office, what are you obligated to do if you suspect that student is suicidal?
I always tell kids this: Anything they tell me is confidential except for three things. By law, if they tell me they're being physically or sexually abused, I have to report that to the Division of Family Services. If they tell me they are suicidal or I find that out, I need to let their parents know. Or if I find out that they're going to hurt somebody else.
In the show 13 Reasons Why, Hannah's counselor learns she's been sexually assaulted by another student. He winds up pressing her too hard to report the student to the police and give up a name, which ultimately scares her off. Once she leaves the office, he never calls Family Services or contacts her parents.
He broke the law...that's just idiotic. The parents have to be involved. They have certain rights. And I personally wouldn't move to a law enforcement thing right away. They need to come to that decision as a family with some counseling before they do that.
Rachel Hodas, Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A licensed school psychologist for two years.
What sort of relationship do you have with your students?
We meet with every student at least once in the beginning of the year, especially freshman. We get that in early. From there, we build relationships with students, and sometimes things come up during those sessions that make us realize when there's a student we want to stay working with. And often, students are making that decision for themselves...it's very common that students will come in and refer themselves to us if something is going on in their lives.
So your students are very open with you. How important is that? In the show, Hannah doesn't have that rapport with her counselor. At the end, she walks into his office with her tape recorder, already convinced he'll be the "thirteenth reason" to kill herself.
That's a really good point. I'm not going to really make progress with a student if they don't trust me. But if a student comes in, there's a reason they came through my door. There's a reason they chose to talk to me. Particularly if it's a student that's self-referred. If I'm feeling disconnected from them...understanding where the student is in that moment is really important. If I don't feel a student is following me, I'm not going to continue in that direction. I'm going to take a different approach.
Yeah, he definitely stayed in that one direction during that scene. I don't think he sensed that distrust.
He could have slowed things down, gotten a sense of how she was feeling and what she needed from him in that moment, and then explored options...and then have her help guide the next steps. Whenever a student comes in with a crisis like that, we're making a game-time decision. So I generally try to slow things down as much as possible.
Anonymous mental health professional at a California high school
A psychiatric social worker for five years.
What do you make of the "suicide contagion" concerns with 13 Reasons Why?
As soon as I heard about the show I thought, "that doesn't seem good." Not that someone doesn't deserve to have people think about them after they die, but it sounds like the show is based on the idea that this is an exciting and interesting thing to figure out. Like a mystery people get to solve, so then this person is getting a lot of posthumous attention. That was concerning to me. Obviously, this can't create someone's desire to kill himself or herself, but it can make [suicide] sound like a more appealing idea to people who already do have that desire. If there are "thirteen reasons why," are these thirteen legitimate reasons why someone should take their life? Is that the story? Or can someone be sexually assaulted and find help?
The show is kind of one-sided. You see how all of these things can lead to a person completing suicide, but you never really see how a school's mental health professional can help.
Yeah, I do suicide assessments several times a week...I'm here. There's no barrier to see me.
Has there ever been a suicide in your school? If not, does your school have a plan in place for if you ever have the misfortune of suffering that kind of loss?
Since I've been here, there hasn't been a completed suicide. I don't know of there being one in the past. There certainly have been completed suicides in the district. Any staff that had contact with a student who completed a suicide has had a really hard time—blaming themselves, trying to look honestly at whether they made a mistake. That happens.
We'd immediately have crisis counseling on campus...And part of the protocol is not to glorify it—to try to give students the chance to process it without doing a huge memorial or a big thing, so that students don't go, "Wow, people finally noticed that person after they died." Not that we wouldn't want people to grieve that person. We just wouldn't want that contagion to happen.
Anonymous mental health professional at a New York State high school
A licensed school psychologist for 21 years.
Are students dealing with different issues now than they were 20 years ago?
That's the number one thing my colleagues and I grapple with. Now, academics has taken a backseat [for students]. We hardly get students coming to us for academic concerns anymore—it's purely emotional. Unfortunately, we've seen an uptick in self-mutilation, and we've seen an uptick in depression. But we have a very solid team. We meet once a week. We review our procedures and which students we have concerns about. We maintain contact with community agencies. We really work hard to support our students.
What are some other limitations of your role in a student's life?
The conflict between maintaining the support of mental health when it clashes with the expectations of academia. Students have to complete a year from September to June. At the end of the year they have exams. They have to get grades. Sometimes mental health issues won't permit that. Some depressed kids just don't have the energy to get through the year. That's a limitation….but we do the best we can. I want people to understand there's help in the school.
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