The US Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why sparked a huge worldwide debate and brought mental health awareness back into the public arena, reaching a wide range of audiences.
The trauma and distress experienced by the teenagers in this series due to their school mate’s suicide was a major theme through the shows, but it revealed an environment where they were not encouraged to seek help for their problems. In the show, school counsellors were also portrayed as incapable in dealing with mental health sufferers.
As we approach assessment week, how many Australian students are suffering and how are their universities supporting them at this stressful time?
Even without exams, one in four young Australians aged between 16-24 years will suffer from some mental disorder according to figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in a 2007 study.
In 2015, suicide was the 13th leading cause of death in Australia. However, in this same year, suicide was the leading cause of death among all people 15-44 years of age; with a higher proportion of deaths among young people, in comparison to other age groups, with suicide accounting for one-third of death (33.9%) among people 15-24 years of age.
However, Philip Armstrong, CEO of Australia’s Counsellors Association says: this television series “has to be put into context, it is a fictional drama series that is meant to emotionalise people to watch it” therefore, offers “very little factual basis to it”.
Canadian nurse practitioner, Michelle Cow, although agreeing with Mr Armstrong’s interpretation of the series, believes that due to “the popularity of the show” it has “led much discussion of the themes” presented in the series, making “suicide a household topic of conversation”.
13 Reasons Why shows a lack of understanding of mental health issues, as well as failing to realise cries for help.
Stigma is a complex issue, and therefore there is no one explanation or global statement to it. However, as Ms Cow states, negative stigma towards mental health occurs “when there is a lack of information or understanding” and as a result, “people form their own opinions and thoughts based on limited information about mental health issues”.
Mr Armstrong argues that the “younger generations to their credit are far less stigmatic to mental health” and are more “open to speak about mental health issues” than other age groups.
One mental health sufferer, wishing to remain anonymous, believes that the show “is not advertising suicide” or presenting suicide as a legitimate choice, and is instead “an adequate representation of what it is like to suffer from depression”.
A cry for help however, can take on many different presentations but “usually presents as a drastic change in behaviour” or “somebody ceases being who you know they are”, and as Armstrong continues, “friends will generally know when someone has changed.”
However, as nurse practitioner Ms Cow contends, a cry for help “can take on many different presentations”, therefore “lifestyle changes” are also an indicator and a quiet call for help.
Without a doubt, observing the consumption of “stimulants” is also important.
According to the ABS (2007), the rate of Substance Use disorders was highest in young people aged 16-24 years (13%), with harmful use of alcohol the most common substance use disorder (9%).
High consumption of prescription medications, “often containing codeine”, as well as alcohol, illicit drugs such as marijuana…” any sort of drugs with an illegal description or illicit, all those can be a call for help… as “people are trying to escape, which generally becomes the reason behind why they are taking these substances”, says Mr Armstrong.
Counsellors aren’t the only sort of help available to students. Despite being trained in psychological therapy and being highly qualified and experienced, once counsellors realise that the “client has displayed problems or is talking about issues that are beyond their skill level”, counsellors can refer to the next level; for example, the psychologist.
According to the ABS (2007), the “prevalence of mental illness relatively high in young people” there was a “relatively low use of mental health services used”.
Ms Cow in reference to the television series, believes that while the show does not “offer any valuable resources or strategies” for students dealing with mental health issues; she credits that the “series does a good job illustrating struggles many teens face”, which “could lead to issues with self-esteem and mental health”.
13 Reasons Why, enables society to evaluate the series by bringing it into the context of education and students at tertiary level. This includes not only universities but also TAFE and other educational institutions, to investigate the importance and role of counsellors, not only in giving support to students with mental health issues, but also the “worried well”
Counsellors also provide exceptional advice and support to students who may feel that their stress levels are being pushed to the limits, with assessments piling up and exams around the corner.
But Mr Armstrong strongly argues that the education system as a whole lacks the appropriate “resources” and need to give a certain amount of independence to them, so students can have “confidence” when seeking the service.
Counsellors should be there for students to seek help and support when they are finding it difficult to deal, but most importantly, as Mr Armstrong suggests, “we should be encouraging students to use counsellors as early prevention”. In other words, students should see counsellors before a problem becomes “clinical or chronic” or when psychologists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists are needed.
Whether it be exam stress, anxiety or something more serious, for more support, look for your university’s Health and Wellbeing page.