13 Reasons Why - Conversations around suicide that matter

Having suicidal thoughts, plans, or attempts is a scary subject for people.  It's scary to talk about them when they're your own thoughts and it can be scary to ask other people about them if you're concerned they're present.  It can feel like there's pieces missing, and it can feel like your entire self has shattered. Even as I write this I am aware of the pressure I could be putting on myself of making sure I "get it right" with how I write what I want to share.  I know that people want to "get it right" when they talk to people about suicide because of a fear of saying the wrong thing and pushing someone further into suicidality.

It is for this reason precisely that I want to share this article with you.  Just as I will not write this article perfectly, there is no perfect thing to say to a person who you think might be suicidal.  When we don't talk, when we don't share, when we don't ask questions, we end up developing secrets.  Secrets become taboo.  Suicide becomes a taboo subject, or perhaps it is much more accurate to say that suicide remains a taboo subject if we continue to avoid talking about it. 

As a counsellor I see people who face thoughts of suicide as a part of my regular day.  I see people who have a plan for suicide, and I see people who have attempted suicide.  It's a conversation I'm comfortable having.

And if you have ever found yourself in a place where suicide seemed like a good option, let me ask you a question.  Would it have made a difference if someone lovingly said to you that it's okay that you've thought about suicide?  It's okay that you've felt so overwhelmed that the only way out seemed to be to take your own life?  That it's not only okay, but it's also understandable.

In my office it's okay to talk about having had suicidal thoughts, suicide plans, or suicide attempts.  I see them all as something that can happen when a person is very distressed and needing relief.  I tell people that perhaps we can get behind that thought and look at what might be triggering those thoughts so that we can help soothe their weary mind and spirit.  We also need a plan that will keep that person safe and protected while we work on moving through this part of life. 

What I have found is this: nobody wants to die for forever.  Most people are seeking relief from their pain, their stress, their overwhelming anguish.  Most people would actually prefer to die for a few weeks, if that kind of thing were a possibility.

If I consider that a suicidal thought is really a person's brain yelling HELP! as loud as it possibly can, then it changes things.  It changes how I view that person, and it changes how that person sees themselves. 

It's a simple mind change, when you think about it.  If you knew that when you had a suicidal thought that it was a sign that you were in extreme distress and needed help, would you be more likely to look for help?  Would you be more likely to look for assistance?  Would you be more likely to stop blaming yourself as the problem and start noticing that thought as a giant red flag of distress instead?

I recently watched 13 Reasons Why, mostly because a lot of the teenagers I see in my practice have seen it and are #obsessed. I was blown away by how boldly the show went into really important topics like suicide, but also of other really important topics like substance misuse, sexual assault, rape, bullying, alienation, and the social hierarchy of high schools to name a few.  They seemed to want to tackle it all in a very real and authentic way, and so at the end of the series I was left scratching my head and being quite puzzled as to why they not only missed the mark on some very important parts but potentially have increased suicide risk among youth.

It had the potential to really end some stigma around reaching out for help when you're at an all-time low, and while I think that the show creators had that goal in mind I'm not sure they accomplished the goal in a meaningful way.  The adult characters who were the professionals were inadequate resources for the youth.  The educator gave information on warning signs of depression like she was reading the phone book, the woman who was a counsellor seemed out of touch with teenagers and unrelatably airy, and the man who was a counsellor who actually seemed to care and asked some pretty good questions didn't ask any screening questions around suicide.  In that situation, most counsellors I know would have asked screening questions around suicide.  That's a problem because it teaches young people that the professionals either don't care, aren't that smart, and/or aren't comfortable talking about suicide.  It leaves them feeling very alone.

If you haven't watched the series or read the book, spoiler alert.  I'm going to give a few more things away here as you read.  I can almost promise that it won't actually spoil the show if you watch it though.  Perhaps it will even make you read it with an eye for a detail you may have not noticed.  

There are five characters who we are made aware of that either attempt, get close to attempting, or commit suicide (did I miss any? let me know in the comments).  There is Hannah Baker who is one of our protagonists, and she dies by suicide.  There's also a scene where we see Clay Jensen say he was close to throwing himself off a cliff, a scene where we see Justin Foley say he went up a crane and was close to jumping or killing himself with a gun, a scene where Tyler Down is getting a gun from a collection of his, and a scene where Alex Standall has attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head and is now in critical condition in a hospital. 

At the beginning of this article, I said it's okay to talk to people about suicide even if it's imperfectly done.  Nobody was doing that in a meaningful way with these teenage characters. Imagine yourself being in that story and asking one of the characters a few questions or statements:

  • You don't look like yourself lately, you seem upset. Are you?
  • When life gets overwhelming, sometimes people start contemplating suicide as an option.  Have you been thinking of suicide?
  • You've seemed to be off in your own world lately, can you give me a glimpse of what's going on?
  • You're more important to me than words can describe.
  • Even though I don't know exactly what to do, I want you to know I care deeply for you.  My life wouldn't have the same beauty in it if you weren't in my life.  What can I do to help give you the kind of beauty in your life that you've given me in mine?
  • I like you.  I know we don't know each other well, but there's something about you I just totally like. 
  • I like you.  I'm so glad our lives brought us close together and I can call you a true friend.
  • I like you.  I know we've drifted apart, but let's change that.  I miss you.
  • I know you said you're okay, but I booked you an appointment with a counsellor.  I see a counsellor too, and even though it's intimidating to get started with one I tried my best to find you a good one.  We can laugh together if it's weird.
  • Are you up for an adventure? My favourite adventures are with you.

I know we've all got a tendency to read quickly then move on quickly, but I encourage you to slow down and read those questions again.  Do you need to know someone is low or suicidal to ask those questions?  I don't think so.  Those are things to say that can help at any time.  Would it mean something to you if someone asked you one of those questions?  My guess is that it would, whether you have had thoughts of suicide or not.  My guess is also that there are people in your life who would say one of these things to you if they knew that it would mean something.  It might even make you and that person feel more connected.

So let's do this together - let's talk to people like they matter and let's talk to people without fear of talking about suicide.  If you find out that someone is suicidal and you're not a professional in mental health then you need to seek outside help.  In an emergency situation where help is needed imminently it is important to call 9-1-1 or you can also head to an emergency room; don't leave a person alone.  A help line for young people under 19 in British Columbia is 310-1234 or there is the Crisis Centre where you can call in or write.  For many other places in the world a crisis line is a quick Google search away.

But here comes the big problem with 13 Reasons Why, and I do believe this is a big one.  It places the responsibility firmly on the people in a person's life for their suicide.  There are so many people I have met who have blamed themselves for suicides, and this series unfortunately perpetuates that narrative.  Blame is a part of the story in 13 Reasons Why and the story would fall apart without the blame, but in a story about suicide there could have been some minor tweaks to the plot line so important members of the audience could have avoided being retraumatised.  The truth remains that a suicide cannot and should not be blamed on one event or one factor.

13 Reasons Why does a fantastic job of showing the ripple effect of one suicide on a family, a group of friends, and the community.  It fails in a very meaningful way to show that suicide is a result of a collection of intertwining variables, and it fails miserably by its depiction that any single one of the characters could have (should have?) prevented it.  It also fails to show that it is now very recognised that a risk factor for suicide is knowing someone who has committed suicide, so those students closest to Hannah Baker would have been set up with service to support them in an ideal real-world situation.  

It ended up glorifying Hannah Baker's suicide, and that is unacceptably irresponsible of Netflix considering that the way Hannah's suicide was portrayed went directly against research and recommendations from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.  Despite all the beauty and fearlessness of the show (which I adore), I am left with a sense of dread.  Because what I know is that when suicide is depicted graphically, when suicide is glamourized, when there is a lot of coverage around suicide that glamourizes the suicide, the risk of suicide increases in a measurable way.

Did you enjoy 13 Reasons Why?  Despite myself and perhaps in spite of my better judgement, I did enjoy it.  I suppose that is also a problem that our media is perpetuating: that we are drawn into these stories of anguish and despair.  We can find ourselves in the characters and find some hope and healing in their stories.  While some found hope and healing, it is likely there are others whose suicidality increased by watching this series. 

If you are reading to this point, I am guessing this article is resonating with you for any variety of reasons.  If you or someone you know are struggling with thoughts of suicide yourself, reach out to a medical or mental health professional.  It is important to remove any firearms, medication, or other objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.

Despite that Hannah Baker said there are no signs a person is suicidal, there often are.  These can include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

There are many professionals who help treat people who have had suicidal thoughts, plans, or attempts.  I think it is important to know that in reality there are great resources out there for people, and that there are many people who live to see the light of not only another day but another, more beautiful chapter of their life.

If you watched (or plan to watch) 13 Reasons Why, keep this article in mind.  Have those conversations, be kind to one another, and reach out for help when you need it.

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