13 Reasons Why: A Brief Review By A Mental Health Professional

13-reasons-whyI recently finished watching the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why. I have to say that it is definitely worth watching, especially for those of us who are parents, work with teenagers or are in any helping profession.

Last night I was talking with one of my interns who said she recommended that her class watch 13 Reasons Why, but that her professor felt like the show idolizes and romanticizes suicide, so her request was rejected.  I think most people who believe this haven’t watched all 13 episodes of the show.

13 Reasons Why isn’t just about a teenage girl committing suicide, it’s about her life. It deals more with the way she lived and what she experienced than it does with her death. It’s  also about the lives that teenagers today live in with the age of social media, sexting and where embarrassing pictures and videos can be shared with a single tap of the share button.

The show deals with drinking, drugs, bullying and other uncomfortable issues such as rape and yes, suicide.

Some critics believe that 13 Reasons Why is a dangerous show that may actually encourage teenage suicide. They fear what is called a suicide contagious effect where publicized suicides have a tendency to increase suicides and suicide attempts among the general population.

While there has been shown a correlation in publicized celebrity suicides on an increase in suicides and suicide attempts in the general population, there isn’t any evidence of fictional portrayals of suicide in television or literature having an impact on actual suicides.

13 Reasons Why explores the lives of modern teenagers in a sort of reverse murder mystery where we already know who killed Hannah, the character who’s life the show is mostly focused on, but through the eyes of Clay, the other main character. We get to reconstruct the pieces to why this happened.

In the show, the parents appear mostly clueless about what’s going on in their kids lives. The bullying, the drugs, the alcohol, the suicidal tendencies. It highlights how so many parents today are so focused on their own careers, relationships and even images of the family being perfect that they can’t see the self destruction going on right under their noses.

I spent five years working in a high school as a mental health counselor, and many of the issues those kids were facing and the things they were doing, their parents had no clue about. Not just including the drugs, alcohol and sex, but also the anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Most felt like they couldn’t talk to their parents, that their parents didn’t care or that their parents were already too overworked and over stressed to be “bothered” with their problems.

In 13 Reasons Why, there were many opportunities and people in Hannah’s life who could have possibly intervened before she got to the point of taking her life, but none of them did.

Her parents were too busy trying to keep their business afloat, her friends were busy being teenagers and not necessarily friends and the teachers and counselor all seemed rather clueless or even uncomfortable when it came to dealing with topics such as sexual assault and suicide.

Much like in real life, there wasn’t one single reason Hannah decided to kill herself. There were at least 13 as the title hints.

Many times when someone commits suicide, even with a suicide note left behind, loved ones are at a loss trying to figure out why the person did it. They may focus on one single event or reason such as depression or a break up, but usually it is more complicated than that.

In the show, much like in real life, Hannah talks about the many reasons that have led her to the point of taking her life. It doesn’t appear as if Hannah had been struggling with depression until the end, but that she lived a rather melodramatic life that was complicated by many different issues.

The show never really talks about mental illness or depression. Realistically, most teenagers who become depressed and suicidal don’t necessarily realize that they are suffering from a mental illness so it’s realistic for the show to never really talk about it using those clinical words.

The suicidal mind doesn’t think that way. It doesn’t think that “I feel really horrible about my life, but I know it’s just the depression talking”.  Instead it makes the person feel hopeless, that things will never get better and that no one cares for them; even if they say it or show it, the suicidal mind will tell the person that they are just lying to spare their feelings.

Most people think that suicidal people are weak or just aren’t trying to cope. The suicidal mind is exhausted from trying to cope, of caring, of being hurt and in pain. It’s a dangerous place to be and it’s where suicidal people spend most of their time, in their mind.

In the end, Hannah felt as if she had no other choice, but to kill herself. She was never offered an alternative to the despair, agony and loneliness she felt other than to turn to drugs and alcohol like many of the other students in the series.

“We all let her down… She took her own life. That was her choice. You, me, everyone on these tapes, we all let her down. We didn’t let her know that she had another choice. Maybe we could’ve saved her life, maybe not.”, says Tony, one of the characters on the show and Clay’s friend.

The suicidal mind believes that it has a choice; to live or to die. Only the suicidal mind doesn’t fight fair because it is overly emotional, irrational, unrealistic and incredibly persuasive.

For those, who are afraid that the show will increase the likelihood of suicide or suicide attempts in teenagers, I suggest watching the entire season before coming to a conclusion.

The show deals with the uncomfortable issues facing teenagers in our society and in the least it’s gotten more people talking about those issues which in itself makes it a show worth watching and I’m glad it got renewed for a second season because I hope it can further this much needed discussion.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “help me” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

 

Embracing These 5 Harsh Realties About Life Will Make You Stronger

Embracing These 5 Harsh Realties About Life Will Make You Stronger

Life is beautiful. There is no doubt about that, but life can also be hard. Sometimes we make it even harder by refusing to accept its harsh realities. We can even create our own little fantasy worlds to try to protect ourselves, but embracing these five harsh realities about life can make us stronger and help us live more authentically.

1. Everyone Is Going To Die

I know this isn’t a pleasant subject, but it’s a fact. Everyone, including you and everyone you love are going to die. When my uncle passed away at age 65, I thought for sure my dad would at least live to be 65. That gave me many more years to improve our relationship and get closer. A couple of weeks later he got hit by a truck and was left in a coma for 1 month before he died. People are here today and gone today. Instead of this being something to get depressed about, it should motivate us to live our lives, find purpose and cherish the people we have in our lives while we still can.

 2.  Motivation Is Bullshit

Many of us are not living the lives we’re supposed to live because we’re waiting until we feel motivated to do something. We’re waiting until we feel like doing it or until it’s the right time. It may never be the right time and we probably never will feel like doing the things we need to do so JUST DO IT! If you want to write a book, don’t wait until you feel like doing it or the book may never get written. If you have an ideal for a business, don’t wait until you have everything figured out to start working on it because you may never have everything figured out.  Most of us don’t feel like going to work in the morning, but we do because we have to. Treat your goals and dreams the same way.

3. The Perfect Partner Doesn’t Exist

Most of us have an image in our head of what the perfect partner will be like. I have been guilty of creating this fantasy partner in my head where we have this perfect relationship and that isn’t realistic. Holding on to that image too much will make anyone we are in a relationship with pale in comparison and perhaps make us appreciate them less by expecting too much. That isn’t fair. There is no perfect partner. That doesn’t mean we settle for just anything, but it means that we should expect to have to put in some work and if we are with a partner who is also willing to work with us then the relationship will become something beautiful and fulfilling even if it isn’t perfect.

4. Life Hurts

Living your life, going after your dreams and goals is amazing and exciting, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Life is going to knock you down, but you have to get back up. Don’t give up on something you want just because it doesn’t work out the first, second or fifth time! You grow from your experiences. You learn from the pain. Instead of going through something, learn to grow through it. If you’re hurting, use that pain to motivate you to get through it and come out stronger.  Living your best life isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. The alternative is not living up to your full potential and dying with so many goals, dreams and talents wasted all because you were afraid to grow through the pains of life.

5. Nothing Lasts Forever

This is one of those hurts of life; nothing lasts forever. We fall in love, out of love, or lose the ones we love. We’re young and then we’re old. We’re all going to die. This is life. Whenever you’re growing through something, rather it’s a break up or grieving the death of a loved one, remember that this is part of the human experience. You’re not alone. Again, use this to motivate you to live life, cherish it and appreciate it while you can. If we all lived forever, if everything lasted forever, when would we appreciate or do anything? Many people who have a terminal illness spend the last few months of their lives trying to finally live. The good thing is, we don’t have to wait until we’re dying to start living fully.

“Embrace reality, even if it burns you.” -Pierre Berge

Finding Purpose: The Difference 5 Years Can Make

When I worked at an inner city high school, my main goals were to prevent teenagers from getting into trouble, dropping out of school, producing children and hopefully to give them tools they can use to become successful adults.

It wasn’t always easy. At times it was frustrating and even disappointing, but I showed up each day motivated and inspired.

Many of the teenagers were like I was when I was their age; lost, unmotivated and trying to figure out where I fit in. I had no one to talk to or guide me. I wanted to be that person for them.

There were times we cried together, we laughed together, even got angry with each other.

We cried over the sudden death of parents, the shooting deaths of cousins and friends, even a couple of suicides. We laughed because sometimes we had to laugh to keep from crying. We got angry with each other because I challenged them and in return they challenged me.

There were disappointments as well. Students I worked so hard with and who made so many improvements fell victim to peer pressure and ended up in trouble. Some dropped out of school, some got kicked out school.

One school year, five of the girls in my program got pregnant and I blamed myself for not protecting them better. Four of the five ended up dropping out of high school. It took my mentor at the time to remind me that I am not responsible for other people’s actions although I felt completely responsible at the time.

Mostly there were successes.

Students that were on the verge of dropping out or getting kicked out of school actually graduated. Students who had gotten a reputation as bad kids learned to control themselves and were no longer getting disciplined left and right. Other students that were labeled emotionally disturbed learned to control their emotions and behaviors. Some of the toughest, most defiant teenagers ended up being positive leaders of their class.

It was the best and most rewarding job I ever had because despite the stress and frustration that came with trying to motivate teenagers deemed unable to be motivated, there were so many emotional rewards.

I saw students who never thought about going to college asking me for help with college applications.  Young men who once preferred to steal from others asking for help with job applications. Teenagers who so many thought had no future, were actively thinking about, planning and taking positive actions towards their future.

Fast forward some short years and I now work at a corrections facility. I have the same stress as I did working in the high school, only without the emotional rewards. Instead I deal with adults and juveniles who are where I was trying to prevent the kids I worked with from going.

In the jail the population I deal with is mostly those who have or claim to have a mental illness. Unfortunately most of them are manipulators and sociopaths. They don’t really want to change and most of them won’t. They want to use the system and society to get whatever it is that they want and will lie, cheat, steal and even kill to get it.

Of course there are those with severe mental illnesses. Some of them I feel should be in a treatment center and not in jail. There are homeless people that I feel like never should have been arrested in the first place. Those people I understand. Those people I will work hard for every minute of every day.

Sadly, 90% of the people I deal with are sociopaths. They will pretend to be mentally ill if it will prevent them from being housed in a certain area of the jail, make the judge or their family feel sorry for them or possibly reduce their sentences. They are not mentally ill.

It’s frustrating because I feel like part of my job is to help people realize they can change for the better. Most of these people don’t want to change. They want to get out of jail so they can go back to robbing, stealing, smoking meth and being the type of person you wouldn’t want to have to deal with.

I’m talking about child abusers, child molesters and murderers who either sit across from me crying, wanting me to feel sorry for them as if they were the ones victimized, or they couldn’t care less because they’ve already been institutionalized and going to prison for 10 or 20 years doesn’t mean anything to them.

Last week I sat across from a man who is accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child with an axe and all he could do was cry about his stomach hurting and the poor medical attention he feels like he’s receiving. I was disgusted, but of course I couldn’t say or show that so I just listened to him complain.

My main job is to prevent inmates from committing suicide and to offer mental health treatment to the mentally ill. My job is not to necessarily treat or expect anyone to get better. We don’t do counseling here at the jail because most people are only here for about 45 days before getting released or sent to prison and most people here don’t want counseling.

While to some degree that should be less stressful, it’s actually more frustrating because I like to consider myself an agent of change and would like to see people evolve into better versions of themselves.

Working in a psychiatric setting, I saw patients get better and get released. Working in the high school, I saw teenagers grow and change into capable young adults. Working in the jail, dealing with adults who have been in and out of the system most of their lives and juveniles who have already succumbed to the thought that they will be criminals for the rest of their lives, I don’t get to see much if any change.

Sure, I would like to think I have saved some lives here. I would like to think that I have reached some people and they will go back out into the community and be responsible. I don’t really know how much of that is true. I would prefer to be able to say that I’ve cut down on the number of people being re-incarcerated, or increased the number of people who got out and got jobs, got off of drugs or did something to be a positive citizen.

Sometimes I still think about the students I worked with over the years and hope none of them ever have to experience being incarcerated, but I know some of them have because  I ran into one of my students here, 2 years later, an adult, incarcerated for stealing a car and running from the police.

I was disappointed. Not even at him, but at myself because I had worked with him so hard to prevent this. I had to once again remind myself that I am not responsible for other people. I just really hope I planted a big enough seed in the others that I will never have to come across any of them again behind bars.

So if I look happier and healthier in the other picture, it’s because I was. I felt like I was making a difference and actually saw the fruits of my labor. Sure the pay was horrible, but at the end of the day I usually left with a genuine smile on my face.

You do have to create meaning and purpose in your life and that goes with your job as well. You can’t just do a job for the money because if you lose the job, you lose the money and what would it all have been for? So I do look forward to coming to work to make sure that no one kills themselves because of lack of mental health treatment; to make sure that those who need mental health services are receiving them and that I’m educating anyone I can on mental health so that they will understand when a mentally ill inmate is actively hallucinating or in a psychotic state, that it is not just an act.

I always say that only 10% of the people I deal with in jail are truly mentally ill and the other 90% are faking in order to gain sympathy or favor. It’s that 10% that give my work purpose.

8 Bad Habits To Break Right Now

8 Bad Habits To Break Right Now

We all have habits that at one time may have served a purpose, but now are likely getting in our way and stopping us from experiencing the life we deserve to live. Here is a list of my top 8 habits to break right now.

Procrastinating

Most of us have things we want to do or know that we should do, but we continuously put them off. In order to be more successful, we have to do what successful people do and that is to actually get on with it. Successful people get an ideal and they go into action. They don’t wait. It could be anything from looking for a new job to traveling or starting a business.

Start by putting action towards your goals. Start by doing at least one thing a day that will move you closer to your goals. Don’t feel like you have to wait until you have all the answers or you could wait forever.

Living In The Past

We all have regrets. Things we wish we wouldn’t have done or said. Things we wish we hadn’t been through. The thing is, the past doesn’t define us. It’s behind us and there is nothing we can do to change it. Some of the toughest things you’ve ever been through have made you uniquely prepared to face life’s challenges. Use them for your good. Focus on what you can change which is the present. Focus on your present to build the future you desire.

Being Afraid To Ask For Help

Many of us pride ourselves on being independent, not needing anyone for anything. However, there is nothing wrong with asking and receiving help. Asking others for help can help you achieve more while also learning from and building a network of like-minded people. You can learn from both their successes and mistakes. It doesn’t make you any less independent or weaker.It can be in fact what you need to take you to the next level.

Being Around Toxic People

Unfortunately there are some people in our lives who don’t want the best for us. They may consciously or subconsciously sabotage us by being negative, sucking up our energy or secretly hoping for and cheering on our failures and short comings. For the most part, people can be divided into drains and faucets. Drains take up your time and energy without adding to your happiness, growth and success. Removing or at least minimizing the amount of time you spend with toxic people will revitalize you and help you stay on track with your personal goals and needs.

Maintaining Clutter

I confess that often my work and living areas are cluttered and that clutter has a tendency to make me feel overwhelmed. I’ve been working on (at least at work) de-cluttering and keeping everything as minimalist as possible. I try to only touch a piece of paper one time and file it, sign it, get rid of it or whatever needs to be done to get it out of my face. I also try to keep a good agenda and an organized place to keep important papers. By not maintaining a constant clutter, I tend not to get as anxious, to be more productive and to feel overall more positive regarding the workday.

Not Making Time For Yourself

Most of us feel like there’s not enough time in the day to do what we need to do. However, if you really think about it, we can find the time. How often do we say we don’t have time to exercise, but we’ll spend 2 hours watching a television show or an hour on social media sites?

There are 10,080 minutes in a week. If you take away 8 hours a night for sleep, that’s 3,360 minutes. That leaves 6720 minutes. Even if you work a 50 hour work week you still have 3,720 minutes left. Now you have to divide that up as it fits into your life, such as time for commuting, but you can see that we can find the time to do the things we really want to do.

Not Getting Enough Sleep

Many of us take sleep for granted. Some of us actually pride ourselves on how little sleep we can get and still function. I for one am a night owl so getting a decent nights rest has always been a challenge for me.

Not getting enough sleep can create health problems and actually make us less productive and less sharp. When I don’t get enough sleep I am less emotionally resilient to deal with everything I need to deal with at work and at home. I tend to get more anxious during high stress situations and just am not myself. Making sure we get enough sleep is an easy way to make sure we are more prepared for whatever the next day has in store for us.

Not Challenging Negative Thoughts

We have millions of thoughts a day and unfortunately some of them will be negative. Left unchecked and unchallenged, we can begin to believe those negative thoughts. Those thoughts tell us we’re not good enough or we can’t do something. They can tell us lots of things to make us feel small and unsure of ourselves.

The good thing is they are just thoughts and we can control our thoughts. We need to stop focusing on the negative and focus on the positive. Focus on our strengths and realize that we’re more than our mind. We have a heart, we have a soul. Change your thoughts instead into solution focused, empowering, motivating thoughts that help you crush whatever obstacles are in your way and help you achieve your dreams.

We all have our own personal bad habits and maybe some of these fit you and some don’t. However, the key to personal growth is to be able to self-assess and change whatever needs to be changed in order to keep moving in the direction we desire. So personalize this, make it yours and if you would like to share some bad habits you plan on stopping please leave a comment, I would love to read them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mentally Ill and Incarceration: A Broken System

The Mentally Ill and Incarceration: A Broken System

Working in a jail or prison is like working in a large mental health hospital, without all the necessary trained staff needed to actually run effectively.

As a matter of fact, the biggest mental health providers in our nation right now are our jails. The three biggest mental-health providers in the nation today are: the Cook County Jail in Chicago, the Los Angeles County Jail and Rikers Island jail in New York.

These are no places for people who are severely and chronically mentally ill.

Decades ago when there were plenty of beds in state hospitals, the most severely ill were often locked away in asylums and forgotten in order to “keep society safe”. Often times they were locked away and offered no real help and suffered horrible conditions and treatment.

Today jails and prisons have become the new asylums.

The mentally ill often get into trouble due to their illness. Often the crimes are as harmless as sleeping on a park bench, trespassing or having an open container of alcohol. Rarely are they violent offenses.

A 2010 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association estimated that 40 percent of the seriously mentally ill have been in jail or prison at least once in their lives.

In the county jail I work in I would say about 75% have some sort of mental illness while about 10% have a severe mental illness that should be treated at a psychiatric facility and not in jail.

Most jails and prisons, like us are understaffed. We currently have four full mental health professionals including myself and a psychiatrist. Ideally, we’d have at least three or four more but there’s not enough funding.

Many corrections officers are under trained when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill and the overall outlook of mentally ill inmates on both medical and security staff in jails and prisons is not usually conducive to effective treatment. Especially for the severely and chronically mentally ill who are often in and out of jail.

Like the young lady I met earlier this week. She’s a 38 year old woman who came up in the foster care system. She had came from an abusive and neglectful family and it’s unclear if the abuse and neglect caused her mental illness or if she was abused and neglected because of it. Either way, starting at a young age she suffered almost every kind of horrible abuse you can imagine.

As an adult she has been arrested over 20 times for everything from possession of cocaine, parole violations and battery.

In 2001 she was arrested for aggravated battery after she attacked and kicked a state hospital guard who ended up suffering a heart attack and dying.

In 2003 she was arrested after two men reported they had unprotected sex with her without knowing she was HIV positive. She later told authorities she knew she had HIV since 1999 and didn’t tell any of the at least 200 men she claims to have had unprotected sex with. She plead guilty and served 23 months.

She continues to cycle between being on the streets, going to jail, the state hospital and prison.

Often times no one wants to take her (the state nor DCF) because she is so mentally ill and has grown more and more violent.

When she came into our jail there was a big push to get her out and back to some place that could manage her better.She’s trapped in a system that in some ways may have helped create her and doesn’t want anything to do with her.

In many ways she has been abandoned since she was a child and as an adult who is now nearing the end stages of AIDS, she is still alone and abandoned.

Continuing to incarcerate the mentally ill over and over again doesn’t work. It doesn’t help anyone. We lock them up where they may or may not get treatment and then send them back out on the street where they may or may not get treatment.

What’s the solution?

We need more state and federal funding for mental health, reform treatment laws to address intervention, assisted outpatient treatment for released mentally ill inmates, expansion of mental health courts that offer treatment instead of incarceration and ideally a health care system that provides systematic health care for those suffering from a mental illness.

If we can find a way and the money to build a wall between between the United States and Mexico, surely we can do this!