In my day job, I work with teens in a public high school. My antenna always goes up when a teacher or a counselor or a psychologist or a social worker is mentioned in YA novels because 9 times out of 10, the author gets some aspect of that role wrong. I’ve seen some discussions on social media lately about how many authors – usually grown adults – write these characters based on their own personal experience in high school because that was the last time they encountered those professionals. That was sometimes upwards of 20 years ago. Thankfully, educators are being trained differently now and there is often a large component of professional development that focuses on mental health, recognizing warning signs, what actions to take, how to talk so students will listen, etc. In my opinion, this is a very positive change and I see it making an impact in my school every day. I’m grateful to know that when my daughter gets to high school, she’ll have so many people looking out for her.
Which brings me to today’s soapbox – what is the author’s responsibility to the reader? When writing for teens, it should be common sense that you don’t have to treat tough subjects delicately – they can handle more than many adults give them credit for. But, there’s often a fine line between realistic and blatantly wrong, especially when we’re talking about mental illness and getting help.
I recently read a young adult novel where there is a strong presence of mental illness with a very mixed bag in terms of outcomes. I found it quite readable with charming characters and lots of authentic moments. However, from almost the first page, I found myself getting more and more angry at the way the author handled certain aspects. I felt so strongly about it, days later, that I felt compelled to share some thoughts and suggestions in the hope that someone might think twice next time they approach this type of character or situation.
Something you might not know if you don’t work in a school is that there are specific rules that all educators and mental health professionals are legally obligated to follow when it comes to crises. If those rules are not followed, the results can be as varied as encountering an angry parent to getting fired to harm caused to a student. Those rules are in place for a reason. We strive for the safety and well-being of all students – this is something schools are constantly talking about and working to improve.
As authors, we’re obligated to research what we’re writing about, even for contemporary stories. When it comes to schools, it’s so easy to draw on our own experiences because it’s also easy to assume everything is the same in education as it was back then. I would challenge authors that it’s also pretty easy to find a teacher or a counselor who will tell you what it’s really like these days and how the legal obligation to our students impacts us. Pick up the phone. Send an email. We’re friendly. Most of us don’t bite. And most of us want kids to know we’re on their side, so we’d be thrilled to tell you about what our days are like.
That brings me back to this book I read. A professional in a school setting appears several times and makes a series of poor choices regarding a mentally ill student. Some of the behavior was so incredibly wrong, I wanted to cry. If I had been a teen reading this book, the message I would have taken away is that adults in schools aren’t on my side and there’s no point in reaching out for help because they won’t help me. I fight every day to make sure my students know I care about them and will do everything in my power to help. As does every educator and mental health professional I’ve ever known in my 13 years in this field. Are there unhelpful people in this profession? Absolutely. But for every unhelpful educator, there are twenty that will bend over backwards for any student.
In light of all the misinformation that floats around, I offer how we do things in my county. This is what any professional would – and should – do if a student in crisis showed up at our door or was brought in by a friend:
1. Assess the situation. If the student is suicidal, we use PLAID PALS to gauge the level of severity.
2. If the student is not actively suicidal, we would most likely make a referral to someone outside the school for various levels of care, depending on the rest of the details. If the student is actively suicidal, we would be recommending they go directly to intake or to their already-established mental health professional’s care.
3. In both cases, I am obligated to call the student’s parents. This means actually speaking with a parent – leaving a message isn’t enough. Even if this is the 12th time the student has come in with the same issue. We’re mandated reporters. This is a state law. I checked the state where this particular book took place and it’s a law there too. If a parent is contacted and refuses to follow the recommendations, this sometimes counts as neglect (depend on the specifics) and we can call Child Protective Services. The law allows us to get the child the help he or she needs even if the parent won’t.
4. We follow up with the whole family as needed. As much time as it takes. Many times it’s a team effort between several professionals, all with the goal of the child’s emotional well-being.
If you’ve encountered someone in a school or working in mental health who is NOT doing these things, they’re doing it wrong and you should absolutely say something.
Is it fool-proof? No. Nothing is. But these steps exist to ensure, as best we can, the safety of all students. Everyone works differently, and every state has laws that vary, but the basics are nonnegotiable. And when authors get those basics wrong, they’re doing a disservice to their readers.
Not every educator is going to be a positive influence. Not every kid is going to be saved. That’s unfortunately reality and breaks my heart. But when we’re shown in books as flippant or uncaring or lazy (I can cite many more examples in YA than the one above), the kids who really need someone may not reach out.
So, this is my plea: if you’re writing about a teacher or a counselor or a therapist, please do your research. Things are very different, even in the last 5 years. Make sure you’re getting it right. Because you just might save a life.