HEY YOU: If you are having thoughts of suicide or are making plans to end your life, please call 1 (800) 273-TALK – or visit this website to chat online with someone who really can make things better: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org (US and Canada). I know they can help because I’ve called them before.
Everyone I know who has watched the hugely popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has been absorbed (and obsessed) with its intense storyline about a high school student who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes detailing how her life slid so far downhill.
Each tape names one of her tormentors and explains what they did to screw up her life.
** Spoilers ahead, and discussion that will probably upset sensitive readers **
I, too, was captivated and binge-watched the addictive drama. I’d been eagerly anticipating its release, hoping that it would generate extensive awareness and conversation. And it has. But it left something out.
At no point in our heroine’s tragic journey does anyone mention depression or mental illness. Directly or indirectly. She does describe feeling empty inside, feeling nothing, being incapable of experiencing emotions. But not even her school counsellor has any kind of resource, pamphlet, phone number or the common sense to hear her words and realize she needs help. That she’s practically begging for it.
My issue with this is that her violent end is presented as the logical, inevitable solution when being bullied and/or assaulted. Even better if you can exact vengeance on your tormentors by naming and shaming them. It is a strategic move that is deliberate, cold and calculated. If I fall, I’m taking you all down with me.
It’s a wounded teenager’s revenge fantasy.
In Canada, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds¹ . Suicide itself is not a mental disorder, but one of the most important causes of suicide is mental illness – most often Depression, Bipolar Disorder (Manic Depression), Schizophrenia, and Substance Use Disorders². The failure to address this massively significant component of any teenage suicide story is irresponsible. It’s like telling the story of someone dying of lung cancer and leaving out the fact that they smoked cigarettes.
I find it discouraging that I saw more discussion about mental illness generated by Selena Gomez posting her new semi-colon tattoo on Instagram than by viewers of the series itself.
The astoundingly graphic presentation of Hannah slitting her forearms in her bathtub, screaming in pain, was both horrifying and mesmerizing. And told me that I should scratch that option off my list of ways to die and focus on something a little less dramatic. It was intended to be disturbing, and was an explicit depiction of her pain, but it certainly did not advocate against killing yourself. It was an effective motivator to select a better method.
And don’t even get me started on the corresponding half-assed resources web page. There was enormous potential in that idea, and Netflix has the resources to do much, much better. But they didn’t. For example, when I selected Canada, I was presented only with the Kids’ Help Phone. If I were an 18-20 year old, I’d probably hesitate if that was my only resource. Which is sad, because there are so many ways to get help. It appears as though the intern who assembled the list did just enough research to fill in their spreadsheet.
If we want to keep the conversation going, we need to step up our game. We need to remove the guilt and shame that comes with feeling depressed and having thoughts of suicide. Letting them know that they won’t be judged for talking about wanting to die. We must give our kids the tools and skills to identify symptoms and the venue to talk about them freely. We need to remind them that just because they can’t feel hope, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
That they are not broken. That if they feel empty and numb, there are many ways to figure it out – and many, many people ready to help make things better.
When they have no friends.
When they’re a disappointment to their family.
When their guidance counsellor is a complete tool.
When they think the only way out of their shitty life is to end it.
There is ALWAYS someone ready to talk. Or chat. Or text.
Watching Hannah die in 13 Reasons Why felt like watching Shoshanna laugh in Inglorious Basterds when she set a room full of Nazis on fire. In both cases, revenge by suicide is romantic and strangely satisfying.
And that’s a tragedy.