By Tracey Dowdy
You may or may not be aware of “13 Reasons Why”, but I guarantee your teenage children are. A Netflix Original, “13 Reasons Why” is the story of 17 year-old Hannah Baker, told through thirteen recordings on old-school cassette tapes. The twist however, is that Hannah is dead. She committed suicide and the recordings are for the 13 people she says are responsible.
That’s heavy stuff for an adult audience, but even more so for its target audience of teens and tweens. The show takes an unflinching look at suicide, bullying and rape, three issues that have received more attention over the past few years. The storyline reminds me of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17 year-old girl from Nova Scotia who was bullied after a photo of her having sex was shared with friends via text and email. As a result, Parsons’ family says she developed suicidal thoughts. Three days after she attempted suicide, her family removed her from life support. The teen who initially shared the photo was eventually sentenced to 12 months’ probation.
According to data from the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-24, (2015 CDC WISQARS). Once upon a time, bad decisions led to rumors and it often came down to “he said/she said”. Today, a single poor decision can be immortalized in a photo, possibly taken out of context, and shared with an entire school in a matter of minutes. Bullying has spread from the real world into the digital world, making it even more invasive.
Executive producer Selena Gomez has been open about her own struggle with mental health issues and is pleased with the attention the show is getting. While I applaud the increased awareness of teen suicide, there are a few things both you and your tween/teen should be mindful of:
1. It’s dangerous when pop-culture and suicide collide. Teens are susceptible to images and ideas. The graphic rape scene or images of a character self-harming in “13 Reasons”, can be a trigger for those who have been a victim of assault or those who struggle with self-harm. A study out of South Korea found “Celebrity suicide is a risk factor for suicidal ideation over a short term as well as over a long term.” In a separate study, Dr. Madelyn Gould of the New York State Psychiatric Institute stated, “Our findings indicate that the more sensational the coverage of the suicides, and the more details the story provides, then the more likely there are to be more suicides.” There’s a fine line between attention and sensationalism, and the emotional health of an individual plays a big part in that.
2. There’s a danger of desensitizing the audience. The debate over what constitutes consent seems to be never ending. In fact, in a separate case, the judge who oversaw the Rehtaeh Parsons lawsuit, Gregory Lenehan, stated “clearly a drunk can consent” when he acquitted a cab driver charged with raping one of his passengers. The more images and the more mixed messages that are sent, the more tolerant we become.
3. There is very little mental health support offered to the teens. Sure, parents ask questions but there isn’t enough emphasis on the fact that an individual struggling with suicidal ideation isn’t sad – they’re sick. There’s a canyon of difference between sadness and depression and between suicidal thoughts and action. The value of mental health counseling is glossed over and given too little attention.
4. Assigning blame ignores the bigger issue. The 13 reasons are the 13 people Hannah holds responsible for her death. Suicide has been compared to a bomb – everyone within its radius is impacted and wounded. Those left behind often beat themselves up by asking, “Why didn’t I reach out?” or “I should have been a better friend/partner/parent…” but it’s never that simple. What a terrible burden for anyone to carry. It’s important those impacted understand suicide is a mental health issue, and is much bigger than a missed phone call or conversation.
5. Suicide is never the answer. Hollywood often portrays suicide as beautiful and romantic but it’s not. It’s brutal. It’s heart crushing. It devastates everyone that’s left behind. That is not to judge those who’ve chosen suicide, but to do so without reaching out for help makes it exponentially more tragic.
Awareness, accountability, and advocacy are the key. We need open dialogue about what is happening, hold to account those who bully and assault, and we must advocate for victims. Otherwise, there can be no lasting change.
You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line.
Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.