13 Reasons Why does not glamorize suicide. It illustrates the pain and struggles that teenagers may face. These are challenges that many of us may have faced in our lifetimes. These important topics include: friendship, suicide, sexual assault, substance use, stalking, sexuality, and bullying.
I was hesitant to watch this series. I knew I could have a strong reaction. I had talked with friends about it and got fired up enough just hearing their reactions. I want to make it clear that my reactions here are my own. They are based on my personal and professional experiences. That’s how we all make meaning of things including television shows. I haven’t yet read any of the articles by other professionals because I wanted to form my own opinion first.
I invite all of you who have either already watched this show or who are thinking about watching it to take a moment and reflect on what it may bring up for you. There’s a chance that a character may remind you of someone you know or a situation may remind you of something that has happened in your own life. How will that impact the conclusions you draw about these characters?
One comment that I have heard some say is that Hannah put herself in a lot of bad situations. I don’t agree. Hannah was a teenage girl trying to navigate the challenges of adolescents in high school. There is no guidebook for this. We all do the best we can and if we are lucky we make it through relatively unscathed. Hannah was not able to do that. One thing after another happened. How much can a person take? Hannah shares her 13 reasons why she died by suicide so that we can better understand her story.
I’ve heard some people say that suicide is a selfish act. Is it really though? Someone is in so much pain and they just want it to stop. Hannah mentioned feeling like she was a burden on others. Maybe in her mind she thought she was doing people a favor. People in pain may not see things clearly. Everything is taken over by the darkness or the numbness. It feels like suicide is the only choice. It isn’t, but it feels that way.
Several years ago, I was at a suicide prevention summit in Colorado. One of the talks included video interviews with individuals who survived suicide attempts. They each shared how after they attempted, they realized they actually did want to live. Some shared how if one thing had gone different that day, maybe they wouldn’t have attempted. I’ll never forget those stories. Kevin’s was one of them.
Suicide is one of the most preventable causes of death. IF we know the person is struggling AND we connect them to support. If you have lost someone to suicide, I don’t want you to think I’m blaming you or saying that you should have done something. You didn’t know what you didn’t know.
While watching 13 Reasons Why, I had a whole range of reactions and emotions. There were moments I was yelling at the TV, moments I cringed at statements made or questions asked, moments I hid my eyes and couldn’t watch, and moments I was in tears. There were so many opportunities for Hannah’s story to change, for the story of all of these teenagers and adults to change. They didn’t know what they didn’t know.
Where does the responsibility lie? We need to be changing the conversations that we are having with our youth. We need to be having the important conversations. It is our responsibility. The conversations may be scary or uncomfortable at times but these conversations will save lives.
While working at WPI, I had the privilege to be part of two grants that helped to support these conversations. The first was a suicide prevention grant. This grant helped the Director of the SDCC, Charlie Morse, to develop the Student Support Network. This six week training program teaches students about mental health struggles, how to support a friend, and how to connect them to resources. The second grant was to reduce dating and sexual violence on campus. Both of these grants provided information, led to important conversation, discussed bystander intervention, and helped make resources available (and known about). In my High School, we had the Yellow Ribbon Project for suicide prevention and the Yellow Dress to discuss dating violence. What is it about the color yellow? These are just some examples of how to start conversations. We need to have these and many more (we needed even more back then, but it was a start). Social media and cell phones have increased the pressure on teens. When I was in school, when we went home for the night we got a reprieve from these pressures, but kids today don’t.
High School can be a challenging time. I think many of us can identify with one if not more of the characters in 13 Reasons Why. Maybe we also struggled to find our place socially. Maybe we felt pressure to be the star athlete. Maybe we were labeled the school slut or a loser. Maybe we were bullied. Maybe we were the bully. Maybe we were all of these and more at different points or maybe just one for a small time. The fact of the matter is that we can relate. That’s likely why this show has become so popular. It speaks about things we don’t always know how to speak about.
No, 13 Reasons Why does not glamorize suicide. It holds up a mirror for us to see all the ugly painful challenges that face youth. We have a choice. Do we continue to hold secrets and avoid important conversations? Do we take this opportunity to stop and have some potentially hard conversations? If you have a young person in your life that has watched this show, I encourage you to sit down and dialogue about it. Even as adults there are things to be gained by talking to each other about the different issues that this show addresses. If we don’t, this is a missed opportunity. It’s time to acknowledge our own fears and pain, to acknowledge the pain and struggles of others, to support one another, and to talk about what we can do to change. Things can get better. They do get better. We know this when we live long enough to see it.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, know that there is hope. Reach out for 24/7 Support. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK, San Diego Access & Crisis Line 888-724-7240, and the Crisis Text Line - Text CONNECT to 741741
For additional resources on how to talk about 13 Reasons Why, see the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
This blog reflects just some of my reactions to Season 1. There is much much more I could say. I invite you to respond with your reactions in the comments. Let's continue this important dialogue. Next, I'm off to start Season 2. More reflections to come after.