[Intramuralist Note: Today features Guest Writer #2 in our annual summer series; the opinions expressed may or may not be held by me, but I value the writer’s expression and their commitment to respect…]
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States…
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, in 2016: Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of nearly 45,000 people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54.There were more than twice as many suicides (44,965) in the United States as there were homicides (19,362).”*
The first time I heard of Thirteen Reasons Why I was looking at a long list of titles to be read in a very short time on a syllabus for a graduate class in adolescent literature. I knew nothing about it. Fast forward some years later and I heard Netflix was turning it into a series. I wondered how they were going to turn a single adolescent novel into a series with adult appeal. Being an avid reader, I am familiar with the concept of censorship and controversial subjects. Being an educator, I am aware of being sensitive to subjects that might be better addressed at home than in a school setting. The subjects tackled in the novel are hard and frankly not something I was sure I wanted to watch. Somehow reading the words on a page wasn’t as difficult as the thought of viewing the story acted out. Being an adolescent isn’t easy, and being the parent of adolescents isn’t any easier. For those of us who have been touched by teen depression in ourselves or someone we love, the thought of watching a story about a teen who chose to end her life hits a little too close to home.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a novel by Jay Asher. It tells the tragic story of a young teenage girl named Hannah who committed suicide and left behind a series of audio tapes explaining her reasoning behind her decision to take her own life. The tapes are delivered in order to thirteen people with whom Hannah had a relationship. Hannah tells each individual how he or she impacted her life and her decision. In the TV series, each character is shown trying to come to terms with how Hannah’s secrets could impact them and deciding whether or not Hannah’s accusations were true.
The story raises many more questions than it answers. The producers of the show decided to tackle many teen issues in this series. Due to its popularity, there was a second season in which the story is extended and the characters continue to deal with the loss of Hannah and testifying in the trial in which Hannah’s parents try to make the case that the school should be held responsible for allowing a culture of bullying and sexual harassment to exist and for neglecting to see that Hannah was assaulted by the star athlete.
Controversy has surrounded both the book and the show. It has caused much discussion and debate around the topics brought up and how the producers decided to tell the story. Some mental health professionals were concerned that the story glossed over the need for mental health intervention. The kids interact with each other but avoid seeking adult guidance. There was concern that the show glorified suicide and used graphic seasons to gain ratings.
It took me a long while to get up enough nerve to watch the first season. I was hooked. The actors and actresses are compelling and took me right back to what it was like being awkward socially and trying to navigate the minefield of popularity and social pecking order. I remember how intense every interaction was and how it felt like every decision seemed to hold your future in the balance. I remember being the bystander when one of the social outcasts was verbally and physically assaulted in the hallway by a popular football player for the crime of being different. I remember being torn between not knowing what to do to stop it and at the same time fearing the ramifications of standing up to one of the popular people. I remember the girls who gave in to what the boys wanted in an effort to be liked and popular. I remember getting laughs by making fun of someone to the point they got someone to threaten to fight me to shut me up. Most of all I remember how alone I felt when it came to a support system for decision-making in the teen world. Some things are just too hard to talk to your parent about, and turning to fellow adolescents for advice doesn’t produce the best wisdom.
At the end of each season there is a follow up episode in which the producers, actors, and consultants are interviewed. The producers get a chance to explain why they chose to tell the story in a particular way. The audience asks questions about various aspects of the show. I wonder how many people skip those episodes? I really get the feeling that the producers of this show do a lot of research and take their job very seriously. Some may question their motives. I believe their intentions are sincere. Do they get everything right? No. Do they make us start talking about topics that need to be addressed? I think so. Do teens have all the answers? Of course not. Do they make bad decisions? Of course they do. Do we need to do a better job of checking in with each other? I think so.
The bottom line is we all play a role in each other’s lives. We have to ask ourselves how we can be a part of the solution. In America, suicide is one of the top ten causes of death. Among people aged 10-34 it is the second leading cause of death. How can we change this alarming trend? Can we check in on each other more often? Can we check on the strong, silent types who may be struggling quietly and go unnoticed because they aren’t drawing attention to themselves? Can we look beneath the behavior of the class comedian to recognize when humor is used as a mask for pain? Can we be slower to anger and judge, offering grace more freely? Can we do a better job of including the odd kid and checking on the lonely? Can we change the way we view mental illness so we remove the stigma surrounding it and make access to mental health as quick and affordable as medical care? Can we be brave enough to stand up to those who bully and offer support to the bullied? Can we listen without judging? Can we notice what is right with a person rather than constantly being critical? Can we do our part to make the world a little more loving and a little less scary for the souls we encounter daily? If we don’t make changing this statistic a priority who will?