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‘Welcome to your tape:’ Local school counselors discuss portrayal of mental health in popular television programs


The Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG, W.Va.  — Controversy has surrounded the way mental health is portrayed in television programs such as Netflix’s recent hit “13 Reasons Why,” but area school counselors feel the portrayal does have some accuracy.

Kristina Robinson, freshman/sophomore counselor at Bridgeport High School.
(Photo by Brittany Murray)

“I’ve read some of the research on that show where they say it glamorizes suicide, but I did not get that impression. I thought they portrayed it well,” said Kristina Robinson, freshman/sophomore counselor at Bridgeport High School. “It gave a good, accurate picture of the struggles that teens face.”

Starting with bullying and cyberbulling as early as the first episode, Robinson said these are things that high school students face every day.

“It started with an innocent act, and then someone took a picture and it spread like wildfire and then it escalated from there,” she said. “It was very accurate in that regard.”

Though Robinson does feel the show played up the blame game a little too much and cringed during the school counselor scene, she has noticed some positive impacts when hearing students discuss the show.

“I think it’s opened the dialogue,” she said. “Unfortunately suicide is referred to as the silent epidemic. No one wants to talk about it, but it’s OK to talk about it.

“You’re not planting the idea. You’re not giving them permission,” she said. “It’s OK to talk about it. It needs to be addressed.”

To further address that issue, counselors are doing their part to spread awareness, particularly with May being Mental Health Awareness Month.

“I think the most important message that I would like the adolescents to realize is that there’s always help available,” Robinson said. “Whether it be with the counselor or another trusted adult like a teacher, we’re always willing to help.”

Dodi Cook, a school counselor at Lewis County High School, said mental health is about more than mental illness, and added that to have good mental health, people must learn to take care of themselves and to deal with stress in a positive way.

“We need to inform our citizens that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength,” she said. “We also believe that there needs to be more opportunity for assistance in mental health — not just individual counseling, but group and community involvement as well.”

Thanks to efforts to spread awareness, counselors have seen changes that have had tremendous impact on mental health.

Cook has seen that social media allows people to be more open with sharing their raw feelings.

“While this gives some people an outlet to express themselves, others do not always respond in a positive way,” she said. “Sometimes these negative reactions can create a downward spiral that can impact a person well into the future.”

In her time as a counselor at Philip Barbour High School, Jan Woodard has seen great progress when discussing drug addiction, but she hopes to see more awareness in suicide prevention and ideology.

“When students claim they’re going to commit suicide, is what ideology means,” she said. “It’s the ideology that students are using right now, and I don’t know if they really understand how having that ideology can affect their lives.”

Woodard said she doesn’t believe students understand the impact of suicide ideology on their future and current lifestyle. When a school gets such a report, they’re required to report that to CPS, which then leads to hospital visits and psychological evaluations, among other measures.

“What we’re finding is that a lot of kids are not truly thinking suicide. They’re using it as a threat, and that’s where some education needs to come in,” she said. “It’s a scream for attention, but there are better ways to get attention.

“To branch off on that, a better thing to do is to teach how to get the positive attention that you need instead of the negative attention.”

Though school counselors are trained to spot the signs of a student who may be struggling, Robinson shares some tips for parents as well.

“We are able to address not just their mental and emotional needs, but also I would look for changes in academic performance, such as a decrease in grades, maybe a change in sleeping patterns, a change in social circles, a decrease or maybe a new social group and mood swings,” she said.

“Of course, with adolescents you get a little bit of common mood swings, but more so than typical,” she said. “Also changes in eating patterns, especially with females who might be concerned with limiting food.”

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