A Monday morning during my senior year of high school felt heavier than usual. Along with all the normal stresses of high school—heavy coursework, uninspired textbook reading and little sleep—the previous day my ex-boyfriend threatened to kill himself if I didn’t start dating him again. As soon as the clock hit the end of the school day at 2:20 p.m., I walked into my English teacher’s classroom. I barely got a hello out before the tears came.
That scene was in my head as I watched Life is Strange’s character Kate Marsh struggle through the events of the game’s second episode. As the other students bully Kate with a viral video, it seems like the school administration hardly cares about Kate’s distress. In both the videogame and schools today, school administrators and faculty often leave their students without a lifeline.
At the beginning of this episode, protagonist Max Caulfield witnesses other girls in her dormitory cornering Kate in the bathroom. They write a web address to the viral video that we’re told shows Kate making out with boys at a party. Since the first episode, Kate’s whiteboard by her room has been littered with insults. Then Max checks in on Kate to find her room dimly lit. The shades are drawn. The lights are off. Kate sits at her desk, unmoving, head hanging low. She tells Max what she can remember from that night, and it’s possible a boy drugged her. By the end of the second episode, Kate jumps off of the dormitory roof.
Depending on the player’s actions previously, Kate may decide not to. But it should never reach that point. Blackwell Academy left Kate feeling alone, and that’s the last thing you want to feel at a breaking point. The last person at school Kate turns to is her photography teacher.
“So you can’t help me?” she asks.
“I’m trying, but you have to understand my position,” Mr. Jefferson replies, but Kate’s already walking away, countering that no one understands her position.
If Max rewinds time to catch the earlier part of their conversation, suddenly it’s Mr. Jefferson accusing Kate of being “brittle” and trying to get attention. If Max walks past them at this point, Mr. Jefferson interrupts his discussion with Kate to call over Max.
“Nobody cares about me,” Kate says as she walks away this time. “Nobody.”
I was fortunate to have teachers who cared about me beyond my grades. Teachers, school administrators and school counselors are in regular, daily contact with students, so they’re in a position to view changes in behavior. Some don’t notice or care, but the worst ones are the teachers who treat it like a bother. Mr. Jefferson is framed as Max’s mentor, but he accuses Kate of wanting the attention. Kate is clearly terrified of what she can’t remember from the night the video was filmed, but when she reaches out for help from an adult, he blames her.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for people of all ages, but it’s the third for people between 15 and 24 years old according to the CDC. The CDC also found the outcomes of bullying include depression and anxiety. While the CDC states bullying does not directly lead to suicide, it does increase the risk, and other factors such as family conflict and a lack of a supportive school environment further increase the risk. Kate’s mother blames Kate, and Blackwell does nothing.
The adults in Life is Strange are incompetent because they inspire no trust. This is because they refuse to truly listen to the students at a time when they want to be taken seriously. Kate gets no support from school faculty or law enforcement. These kinds of adults are doing their utmost to avoid problems without actually addressing them. It’s not until Kate’s suicide that the school principal decides to investigate.
But even in our schools, there’s a lack of engagement. According to a Gallup Poll that surveyed K-12 teachers in 2012, almost half of the teachers experienced daily stress, and nearly 70 percent of the teachers reported they did not feel engaged in their work. Young adults closely observe adults to figure out what’s expected of them. When teachers don’t show they care about their students, the students will be less likely to confide in teachers.
Fortunately, there’s a specific position at schools for faculty to be present for students’ mental health and wellbeing. School counselors have a challenging job of cultivating an environment of trust, respect and empathy so that students will feel comfortable approaching them with problems. However, many states have no mandate for counselors in primary and secondary education. Counselors sometimes work only part-time at schools, and the ratio of counselors to students is usually around 1 to 500-700, except in the case of Iowa, where the recommended ratio is 1 to 350.
School counselors are also more focused on students’ futures than their worries in the present. These counselors are on hand specifically to give juniors and seniors advice on college applications, but sometimes they don’t bother to find out why a student is struggling. And to be honest, the last person I wanted to talk with about my ex-boyfriend threatening me was a school counselor who only knew what was on my transcript.
We haven’t seen much of Blackwell Academy’s faculty in Life is Strange, so it’s unclear whether counselors are present at the school, but they’ve never been mentioned, and they weren’t visible at the meeting with the principal, the photography teacher and the head of security at the end of episode 2. Regardless, what happened to Kate was indicative of indifference on the faculty and administration’s part. Sadly, faculty in our schools make victims feel like they are a liability. In my high school, anyone involved in a fight—even if they were only on the receiving end—usually faced suspension. Someone standing up to a bully was sure to be sent home as punishment.
American public schools lag behind those in other countries, and it affects everyone. Job insecurity and lack of unity with administration stresses teachers, which students can then feel in the classroom on top of their own stresses. A lack of student counselors means students aren’t seen as individuals. At the end of the day, the lack of understanding of mental health isolates those students.
Schools are more than a place to learn how to give answers on a test. They are social spaces, and if a student feels rejected there, without a support system they’re going to feel alone, and it’ll keep happening to other students as well. Schools need teachers and counselors who care. Life is Strange’s Blackwell Academy in the first two episodes has shown no policies concerning bullying and specifically how it affects women, but it can show us the importance of support for students. We need to show that we care about each other. We’re in this together.
Carly Smith is a freelance writer and editor located in the greater New York City area. Find her on twitter @roseofbattle, and she promises to show you cute pictures of cats.