Content warning: This article contains references to rape and suicide.
After 15 seasons, there isn't a lot of ground that Grey's Anatomy hasn't already covered, especially when it comes to tragedy. Characters have been electrocuted, hit by buses, smashed under planes, shot, and felled by various medical emergencies. It's par for the course on a show like this, with its life-and-death stakes and its socially conscious storylines, to tend to use extreme situations to put its characters through the emotional wringer, and in doing so, to try to make a larger point about the world we live in. However, there is one tragedy that the doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial haven't had to face yet: the loss of one of their own, by her own hand.
Earlier in season 15, Jo Karev finally tracks down her birth mother, who had abandoned her at a fire station when she was a baby. She is hoping for closure, something that would explain why her mother left her all those years ago and settle the restless questions that have always swirled through her mind. But the truth turns out to be far uglier than anything Jo had prepared for. Her father had raped her mother while on a date, and her mother had given her up because looking at Jo forced her to relive that trauma.
Since then, the typically upbeat and resilient Jo has been in a dark place. She hasn't been coming to work, she's been hostile to her husband and friends, and she's been drinking water bottles full of vodka just to get through the day. Episode after episode, the people who love her have been trying to get her to tell someone what's wrong, but to no avail. Finally, in the penultimate episode of season 15, we learn that Jo's husband, Alex, has asked his best friend Meredith to essentially move in with Jo (while Alex stays at Meredith's house to help care for her kids), and not leave her side until Jo talks to her.
At first, Jo is resistant, but eventually, Meredith and Alex's plan works. In a moving scene, Jo reveals to Meredith that she is a child of rape, believes that she shouldn't exist, and thinks that her inheritance is one of violence and pain. After listening to Jo's story and trying to counter her narrative by reminding her of all the good that's come from her life, Meredith decides to share her own experience of nearly drowning, referring to the ferry boat wreck back in season three. She finally admits what Derek always knew: that for a moment, when she went under the water, she wanted to stop fighting, and just give up. That she didn't fight to survive, but that Derek and her friends fought to save her.
"The only reason I'm here," she tells Jo, "is because the people who loved me didn't give up on me."
Then she asks Jo a hard but important question: is Jo asking for more time to get better, or is Jo telling Meredith that she wants to stop? After a long pause, Jo replies, "I don't want to stop. And I do."
As soon as Jo admits what she's thinking, Meredith jumps into action. She tells Jo that they're going to go to the hospital to talk to Chief Bailey, get her a proper leave of absence, and then get her the help she needs. "I have you," Meredith promises. Up until this point, Meredith is doing everything right. She asks the right questions, takes Jo's mental state seriously, comes up with a plan to get her help, and promises to rally her support system around her. She also, wisely, realises that Jo shouldn't be left alone, and vows to stay by her side.
However, almost as soon as they get to the hospital, her plan gets derailed. Jo gets left with Meredith's boyfriend, Andrew, while Meredith goes to find Alex. Meredith gives Andrew strict instructions not to leave Jo alone, but he soon gets pulled into a meeting. Jo says she'll be fine on her own, but after hearing her conversation with Meredith, we know that might not be true.
As it stands going into the season finale, Meredith is the only one who knows what's really going on with Jo, and she's locked in a hyperbaric chamber with Alex. No one else really understands just how dire Jo's situation is, or how badly she needs help. The promo for the season finale shows Jo back in her lab coat, jumping into action, but this doesn't give me much peace of mind as long as no one's aware of her mental state. And given how the episode ends for Meredith and Andrew, the one person who fully understands the situation may be too distracted to check on her.
I don't think Grey's Anatomy's writers would go so far as to actually have Jo take her own life, but as things are now, it does seem as though they may be setting up a scenario in which she could make an attempt. While this show is well-known for killing characters in shocking ways, I'm wary of any attempt to use a suicide narrative as an entertaining twist. Although many of the dramatic medical scenarios portrayed on the show can and do affect real people, the portrayal of suicide in media has been shown to have a negative effect on viewers who are already struggling with thoughts of self-harm, making it a topic that either needs to be handled with incredible care, or not at all.
However, if Grey's Anatomy is headed down this road, then the best-case scenario is that it will use Jo's storyline not just to churn up some fresh new storytelling ground, but to educate viewers who find themselves in either Jo or Meredith's situation. This wouldn't be the first time the medical drama has used its platform to bring attention to a delicate and important topic, and if the show is going down this road, it's probably not a coincidence that it's doing so during Mental Health Awareness Month. Meredith's words and actions with Jo during "Drawn to the Blood" did a good job setting an example of what to do if you suspect a friend may be struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide. If Jo's storyline does continue to progress down such a dark and difficult path, I can only hope that the show also makes it clear that there is help available, there is hope for the future, and that she is not alone.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.