If you haven’t heard the buzz, the Netflix mini-series “13 Reasons Why” has taken over many conversations in the educational community. Based on the book by Jay Asher, it focuses on high schoolers (set in today’s educational environment) with the usual cliques (cool kids, preppies, honors kids, jocks, band kids, and…). A student at their school, Hannah, takes her own life, and another student, Clay, returns home from school to find that he has received a package in the mail containing seven double-sided cassette tapes from Hannah, each tape detailing an incident and a person that played into why she killed herself. They had been sent to several others before arriving at Clay’s door. There were 13 parts on Netflix, and, after watching each segment, I had a nasty knot in my stomach. Some knots were from my own awkward high-school experiences; others were from the blatant evil that today’s students can be subjected to or can utilize.
I don’t want to give away the entire story, but it starts with an incident that I blogged about last spring. (On a side note, that post gained a bit of traction when someone became completely paranoid and thought he/she was the only one who received it. This is not sexual harassment; this is educational information.) Hannah has a picture taken of her with a boy on a “date” which is seen by the boy’s friend and taken completely out of context. His friend grabs the phone and then sends the picture out to an entire class, which eventually makes it around the entire school.
Topics include the aforementioned body shaming, rape, sexual assault, cover-ups, and societal acceptance–the daily grind of what high-school life is today. High school is an interesting navigation as is. Throw in today’s technology, and you have a whole new world–a world where previous generations can’t even begin to fathom what is happening in school anymore. It’s no longer passing notes and settling the score at the flagpole over some stolen milk money.
Teen suicide is the second largest cause of death in the US. For every teen who commits suicide, at least six others are thinking about following that same path. Despite such a terrible statistic, conversations are happening every single day about getting people the help they need. While the series has launched a multitude of proactive stances and resources, it has also caused some copy-cat incidents and some concerns from mental health experts.
Thankfully, 13RW is a fictional story. It is meant to raise awareness of suicide and is not based on any single or real person. However, while Hannah’s story is not real, students often do have similar experiences and thoughts to those of the characters and identify with those they see on TV or in movies. Therefore, it is important to remember that there are healthy ways to cope with the topics covered in this series, and acting on suicidal thoughts is not one of them.
If you have watched the show and feel that you need support or someone to talk to, reach out. Talk with a friend, family member, counselor, or therapist. There is always someone who will listen. Suicide should never be a response to life’s challenges or adversities. The vast majority of people who experience bullying, the death of a friend, or any other crisis addressed in 13RW do not die by suicide. In fact, most do reach out, talk to others, seek help, or find other productive ways of coping. They go on to lead healthy, normal lives.
Suicide is never a heroic or romantic act. Although some might watch 13RW and see Hannah in that light, there is nothing heroic at all. In fact, 13RW can be viewed as a tragedy. It is important to know that, in spite of the portrayal of a serious treatment failure in 13RW, there are many treatment options for all types of distress and mental illness. Treatment works.
Suicide affects everyone, and we all can do something to help if we see or hear warning signs that someone is at risk. Talking openly and honestly about emotional distress and suicide is okay. It will not make others more suicidal or put the idea of suicide into their minds. If you are concerned about someone, ask him/her about it. Knowing how to acknowledge and respond to those who share their thoughts of emotional distress or suicide with you is important. Don’t judge them or their thoughts. Listen. Be caring and kind. Offer to stay with them. Offer to go with them to get help or to contact a crisis line.
In my opinion, how the counselor responded in this series is not appropriate and not typical of most counselors. School counselors are professionals and are a trustworthy source for help. While not everyone will know what to say or have a helpful reaction, there are people who do, so keep trying to find someone who will help you. If someone tells you that he/she is suicidal, take that information seriously and get help.
Leaving messages from beyond the grave is a dramatization produced in Hollywood and is not possible in real life. Memorializing someone who died by suicide is not a recommended practice. Decorating someone’s locker who died by suicide and/or taking selfies in front of such a memorial is not appropriate and does not honor the life of the person who died by suicide. Hannah’s suicide blames other people for her death.
Suicide is never the fault of survivors of suicide loss. There are resources and support groups for suicide-loss survivors. If you are immediately concerned about yourself or a friend, reach out for help by texting 741741 or visiting http://www.crisistextline.org/. You can also learn about emotional health and how to support a friend by going to https://www.jedfoundation.org/help, and you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 | En Espanol: 1-888-628-9454 | Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889 or by visiting Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.