Mental health on the screen leading to change in the classroom

Students in a class are depicted giving a display of what they are sometimes influenced by. Photo By Daniel Silva

By Daniel Tristyn Silva

BOSTON — Mental health issues among today’s youth, as portrayed on screen, are causing a change in how some educators are approaching their students.

Three different public school teachers have observed a shift in the last 10 years of how teenage mental health is being shown on television. The uptick in number of perceived teenage suicidal thoughts and drug use on television has been cause for concern.

The Netflix show 13 Reasons Why was found to have been directly linked with an increase in youth suicide by a study conducted by The National Institute of Mental Health. There were more suicides in the month the came after the shows release than any month in the previous five years.

“I hated that show when it came out,” said Danelle Merrill. “I would watch my kids in class glued to their phones watching it. These shows are like crack to these kids. They come out and then they stay up all night watching it and talk about it for weeks.”

Merrill, a high school teacher of 21 years, had been in the classroom through the rise of streaming and seen the level of ease of access to content shift to what she described as extreme. She said she felt it was to the detriment of her student’s health especially with shows like 13 Reasons Why.

The title of the show is talking about reasons why this teenager felt were okay to just go ahead and like kill herself. That’s scary. Scary that we even don’t think it’s alarming that show is so popular. All my kids are talk about depression naps and mental health days, but I wonder if this is what they’re watch on their mental health days instead of going to therapy,” said Merrill.

Merrill said she thinks, as a result of this, there should be a change in the way school’s approach their students about mental health issues or that some should start in the first place. 

Merrill used to allow students use their phones to watch content if they had finished their work. Now, she limits their device use to only listening to music. On top of that, they have to respond to a writing prompt first. They have to answer how they are feeling mood-wise/mentally on a scale of 1-10 and then say why. 

“I think having the kids check in with themselves, but also having the ability for me to be able to have that peace of mind is so useful. If I open up my phone and the title has a suicide note in it, then we’ve got to make adjustments,” said Merrill. 

13 Reasons Why has been been watched for more than 400 million hours according to Netflix. Its main characters are all teenagers in high school.

Another educator has been inspired to influence the system from the outside going forward. She, coincidentally, also watched 13 Reasons Why and shows like it that gave her an idea to do so. 

Sophia Rodriguez was an art teacher for nine years when she continued to see her students and her own children start to experience more mental health issues. 

“I was going into my tenth year and I thought it was time to make a change,” said Rodriguez. “I have going through things with my own kids and seeing the kids in the class be consumed with their iPhones. I see the Euphoria, the 13 Reasons, the this, the that, all of it. I don’t really think it’s healthy. I am a reader and I see the news. I know children are mentally not right during this time of trouble. They’re searching for that kinda safe space.”

Knowing what the content of those television shows is, Rodriguez wanted to provide a real tangible place that students could have a positive outlet that didn’t feature dangerous aspects that could further a negative impact on their mental health. 

“I started a company through that Etsy site and I make classroom decorations and kits. They need to come into a warm space where they feel protected and good. They need to get pulled out of that stuff in the phone and the TV. I have now fully quit teaching to dedicate myself to this new passion,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez became aware of what her students were watching and how it was causing them to feel. She surmised that the way they were feeling is due to them needing a safe place to escape to. Her way of contributing to a healthy version of that, separate from them watching TV shows with poor mental health depictions, was to start a business for other teachers to create safe spaces like she did in her class.

Another educator had a more personal experience with one of her students. For that reason, the educator asked to remain anonymous. 

“I was watching this show that had two young people kill themselves. I had this gut feeling as if it could be someone I know. I talked to each one of my classes that day and told them that if anyone ever needed to talk, I would be there. I apologized, because I should have done it on day one,” said the educator. 

The educator said that a student, who will also be anonymous, reached out during lunch period. 

“She walked in and just completely broke down. I didn’t know what to do at first, but I just knew to listen before even thinking of how to reply. I talked to the guidance counselor, who, of course, was no help. She said she had been having some suicidal thoughts,” said the educator. “Her parents weren’t too keen on the idea of her talking about things like that, but her grandma was great. She’s all better now, thank the lord.”

Depictions of mental health issues on screen are impacted educators in various ways.

The previously mentioned educator, who wished to remain anonymous, now talks to her class at the beginning of every school year to see if they ever need anything.

“What you see on tv really can be someone you know,” said the educator.

If you or someone you know are in need of help for a mental health issue call 1-800-950-6264 to speak to the National Alliance On Mental Illness Helpline