I haven’t watched the show personally. If you know anything about me, you know that I had a suicide attempt in March of last year. It’s not something that I hide, or shy away from–it is a part of what makes me who I am. I refuse to succumb to the taboo that suicide and mental health in general are not to be talked about. While I applaud the rendition of 13 Reasons Why into a tv show for sparking a discussion about suicide, especially among teens, I also think that it is important to know that as an outsider, you can never really know the “reasons why” a person feels that the only escape from their life is to end it.
Although I haven’t watched the show because I don’t want to allow myself to immerse myself in a tv show about a dark time in my life, I did read the book when I was in middle school, and I also have read a summary of the Netflix series adaptation. My biggest criticism of 13 Reasons Why, (both the novel and the series), is that it does not touch on the issue of mental illness, and instead makes a big deal about the “reasons” why Hannah committed suicide. This is both unrealistic to the actual experience of being suicidal, and ignores the bigger issue when it comes to suicide among teens. So instead of watching the series, I decided to make my own list of 13 reasons why we need to talk about suicide, and what lies behind it: mental illness.
1. “suicide” is not a dirty word
This is the one issue that I think 13 Reasons Why addresses almost too well: the taboo of suicide. Suicide in our society is often pushed under the rug, because most people do not understand a victim’s reasoning behind it. It is hard to understand why a person would want to end their own life; there are so many circumstances that lead up to that moment, and suicides often leave loved ones with many unanswered questions and “what if’s.” At the end of the day, it’s easier to ignore a topic than broach one that you cannot understand. That is the approach that our society takes with suicide, and that is a problem; we will never fix the issue unless we can feel comfortable talking about it.
2. suicide IS a problem
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In the United States, every year there are about twice as many suicides as there are homicides. It’s the 10th leading cause of death in people of all ages in the US, and the 2nd leading cause in young Americans aged 15-24 (NIMH). There are around 850,000 people that attempt suicide every year in the United States, which translates to a suicide attempt every 38 seconds (Emory).
3. nobody gets it
There is a Ted Talk on Suicide by Mark Henick entitled “Why we choose suicide.” One of the very first quotes is crucial in understanding suicide, speaking of his first suicide attempt as an early teen,
If I knew then what I know now, well, it probably wouldn’t have changed very much.
The most important thing to learn in trying to understand suicide, in my opinion, is that you’ll never really understand it. I still don’t understand my own attempt, and I’ve gone to extensive therapy and talked about it consistently since. Desperately wishing for your life to end is, luckily, not a concept that most people understand (I hope). Mental health issues play into the majority of suicides, meaning that the victims’ brains aren’t working properly–they don’t even understand their suicide themselves. It is my belief that 13 Reasons Why paints suicide as the ultimate revenge, as a way of calling out high school bullies, but if you asked an almost-victim like myself, I would say that it is anything but. I cannot speak for everyone, but in my own experience my attempt had nothing to do with the people around me and everything to do with myself. Unfortunately, that’s all I really know, because suicide is hard to comprehend–even for someone who commits it (or attempts to). This is more the reason to make it a topic open for discussion, so that people can begin to understand the “reasons why” the decision.
4. mental health needs more attention
I don’t think this point needs very much explanation. How often to people go to the doctor for a physical check up? How many times do you type your physical symptoms into WebMD, diagnosing yourself with some terminal illness (when it’s really just a cold)? Often. But how many times do you sit and wonder if maybe your problems getting up in the morning, meeting new people, or inability to not fix that misplaced book on shelf were anything other than a weakness? The lack of mental health awareness hurts the people suffering from mental health diseases the most, because they might not even see it as a health problem, but a flaw in their character that they just can’t seem to overcome. Often times that “flaw” is much more than that, and it deserves just as much attention as your blood pressure does.
5. depression is a disease, not a feeling
“I’m so depressed right now,” “I’m gonna have a panic attack,” “She’s acting so bipolar,” “Finals are pushing me into a mental breakdown.” Sometimes, people who say those things might actually be having a panic attack or a mental breakdown, but more often than not they are just using mental health issues as a figure of speech. It should go without saying that this is belittling to those that actually do suffer from mental illness.
6. the stigma
The stigma against mental health issues needs to be fixed. Why should I be so fearful in writing this article, in revealing my own health issues in my hope to help others, that a future employer will see this and not offer me the job? Should a suicide attempt be considered “dirt” in my eventual campaign for the U.S. Presidency (#Folan2048 – you heard it here first). If a person is hospitalized for appendicitis, do we think any less of them as a person? No, because appendicitis is a physical disease, and for some reasons mental disease don’t get to fall in that same category, which leads me to my next point…
7. no one should be punished for their disease
After my hospitalization two-thirds of the way through my freshman year of college at Santa Clara University, I reached out and attempted to get Incompletes in my classes, as I hadn’t attended my finals due to my crippling depression and anxiety. I didn’t believe that I was asking much of the school; in fact, a student had contracted meningitis earlier that quarter, was hospitalized, and of course excused from his courses. My response was a stone cold no, no matter who I talked to within the administration. Their reasoning? “Once the grades are printed they cannot be changed.” If I had contracted meningitis at the end of the quarter, is that would they would have told me? Probably not. I think the situation speaks for itself.
8. the more we talk about it, the better off we are
As suicide and mental health issues in general begin to be more frequently discussed, it seems only natural that the stigma surrounding mental health would fall away. If we aren’t afraid to talk about it, aren’t afraid to come forward with any issues we might have, the better off we will be.
9. suicide is not glamorous, romantic, or vengeful
Cue one of my biggest issues with 13 Reasons Why. Sorry high school bullies, while you probably didn’t help the situation, it’s not all about you either. Yes, we all could use more kindness and empathy in our lives, but that doesn’t fix mental health. And suicide is not just a tool for someone to get their revenge, it is not a way to attract glamorous amounts of attention. I don’t want to be too harsh, but how can you witness the attention if you are dead?
10. cancer jokes aren’t okay
So suicide jokes shouldn’t be either. Another caveat that I have with 13 Reasons Why is the humorous reaction I’ve seen not just from my peers, but from adults, and even the official social media accounts of respected businesses. Making jokes about suicide, “welcome to your tape” memes, and laughing off the situation belittles how serious suicide is. It is not something that should be taken lightly. Suicide ends lives, and I don’t think I’ll ever understand how people can so publicly make jokes about it, and that it is socially acceptable to do so.
11. so many people are at risk
Remember the statistic I shared earlier about suicide attempts in the US alone? Every 38 seconds in this country, someone feels that suicide is their only option. The truth is, you never know what is going on in someone’s head. I definitely wasn’t okay heading into my attempt, but I don’t think anyone around me expected it either. The best thing that we can do to help whoever might need it is to talk. If everyone is open, willing to be there for someone questioning the value of their own life, maybe we wouldn’t lose so many precious lives every year.
12. antidepressants are not a sign of weakness
Are antidepressants the lone solution to mental illness? No. You can’t just take a pill and feel better, it takes a lot of work on yourself and your thought-process to work through a mental health disease. But I don’t feel the need to whisper my prescription to the pharmacist either, and no one should. Why should I try to hide the name on my prescription bottle that I take every morning from the people around me? It says Zoloft, and I shouldn’t have to feel ashamed of it (that’s actually a lie–its the generic brand so its a long, boring name that no one would recognize). Similarly, mental health diseases are not a sign of weakness, of inferiority, and are never something to be ashamed of. No one should feel ashamed over something as silly as a change in brain chemistry.
13. what happens when we don’t talk about it
When we don’t talk about suicide, we are bound to run into it in the worst way possible. Suicide is preventable, mental health diseases are treatable, and there are lives in danger that don’t need to be lost. As long as we continue to hide away in fear from the topic, it will have a strong hold over our society. Once we start talking about it, we can remove the stigma and shame that surrounds it, and hopefully a person could feel comfortable seeking help without judgment (or unpaid insurance bills).
While I believe that the creators of 13 Reasons Why had good intentions, I think its impact is detrimental for mental health awareness within our country and beyond. 13 Reasons Why is unrealistic. In no world would a properly trained mental health professional tell a child questioning their own life to “get over it,” a person does not commit suicide simply to spite her bullies, and there is no glory that comes from it. The only impact that I have seen the show make so far, at least on my own generation, is normalize inappropriate, line-crossing jokes that turn suicide into a meme. If you haven’t watched the show yet, I recommend against it. If you are a parent, I urge you to find out if your children have watched it. If they have, I strongly advise sitting down and having a conversation about suicide. Suicide is awful, and it’s time that we lift the taboo and set out to raise awareness.
If you, or anyone you know are feeling distressed/hopeless, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Don’t want to talk to a stranger? Add me/message me on facebook, DM me on instagram, tweet me, leave me a message through wordpress, do whatever you need to do to contact me and I promise I will give you my number. I am always here for anyone to talk, whether or not we have even met.
Never forget that you are loved by at least one person in this world.