"13 Reasons Why" is a Keg in an AA Meeting
I am all of the mixed feelings about 13 Reasons Why.
If you live under a rock, 13 Reasons Why is a Netflix series that, in a nutshell, walks you through a high school girl’s revenge suicide plan, ending in her actual suicide, which they show. It has made so many of you angry for so many reasons, and so many of you have also been motivated by it to treat people with more kindness -- there are positive and negative things to sift through.
Suicide is something I take very seriously. My expertise in this is two-prong. Yes, I have my own experience with suicidal feelings (which you can read about here), and I am also a counselor. I have lived this, and I have worked to resolve it (as much as is responsible to claim -- you never know what will trigger you), and then I have led people through it in therapy. I can, albeit with limitations, see both sides of this thing.
I love that 13 Reasons Why has catapulted us into having such a dynamic conversation about suicide, but I hate that it has done it in a way that is so unsafe for so many people. And what’s more – I am seeing a lot of talking, and not a lot of doing. The people who are hurting, people who are experiencing suicidal feelings, they need us to be just as much talk with even more action. Where is the action? Yes, it starts the conversation, but it really leaves you hanging if you are in a place where you are not ready for its contents.
Simply put, the release was irresponsible, and the triggering nature of some of the scenes is reckless. It should have been shepherded -- a guided watch.
You do not take a keg to an AA meeting to try and accomplish healing, and if you do, you can't throw your hands up and act like you didn't know it was gonna trigger some people. This is just the flat-out, unregulated truth. YES, this series is getting people talking about suicide, and every piece of my heart says HOORAY to that. BUT – and hang with me here – this show being released into the wild on Netflix is the exact same thing as me walking into a halfway house and leaving them with unlimited beer and a barrel of hypodermic needles. We have to realize that some people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts do not have the proper supports in place to keep them safe. This show is a catalyst in some good ways and some bad ways. We have started a conversation, but we have also put a lot of people at risk at the same time.
I have heard from well over 100 people with personal narratives on how this show is a trigger for them in some way. Here are some of the things that you brave people have shared with me:
“I have severe depression and anxiety and that show messed with me. I've never had suicidal thoughts but that show made it look like a pretty easy alternative.”
“I had a situation with my mom last year and the ending brought back a lot of feelings that I wasn't prepared for.”
And if I may be more direct about it…
“If I had watched this show at that age (high school, college, freshly graduated), it would have put the gun in my hand. I was so angry, and so vengeful. if I had seen the beautiful Hannah Baker slit her wrists in gorgeous lighting, with sweet music in the background, and watched all her enemies suffer her revenge, I would have pulled the trigger. I know that isn’t the point of the books, but the show executes it so melodramatically, and with such… style, that it would have been irresistible. I was sick.”
This is actual, valid, ethnographic research. These are reactions from people.
I will say that the producers did some CYA and made a follow-up documentary.
It’s called “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons” and it actually pops up right beside the show when you search the title. But I don’t think anyone is watching it, especially the people/teenagers/whoever who are struggling with suicide. I watched it….and I don’t know, I still think it doesn’t fix the whole shock factor they seemed to be going for. And I do think their intentions were so good here. Why? Because Selena Gomez was on the production team. I love her for being so open and honest with her own struggle with mental health…and for that reason, am very surprised that she signed off on such a triggering portrayal of a person's story.
So, let me say it again: I think that the stir this show has caused will actually cause more suicides if we do not steward this conversation well on a national level, so I am going to focus my attention on that part. This is not just because the show is a trigger; it is because of some of the vocal reactions to the show. Some of you have suggested that the things Hannah Baker experienced in the show are "not worth killing yourself over." Hear me very clearly here: it is NOT YOUR JOB to make that call. I think it may just be more correct that you can't reconcile why all of the things Hannah went through would leave her with the desire to commit suicide -- this is FINE. To someone in Hannah's shoes, it was a real solution to real distress. That is so hard to wrap your mind around if you haven't struggled there.
Another thing that is going to make all of our hearts expand here is that we cannot ostracize people who haven't dealt with this from the discussion, as if this is a secret society. We have GOT TO explain our experiences to the "other side" It is one thing to yell instructions at someone who is in the bottom of a dark hole. It is another to jump down and teach them how to build a ladder because you've had to before, and you know how from experience. Both are extremely valuable. One is perhaps more helpful in times of acute distress. However, there are ladders you can build that I can't. And vice versa. It's why we all need to be in on the same conversation--it's a huge team effort.
I, and others who have experienced suicidal thoughts, think the depiction of the protagonist's journey is very accurate; I have heard some say it seems "overdramatic" -- but lots of individual experiences are like this, if not worse. I never counted the number of stories like this I heard in my two years as a high school counselor, but I wish I had. In that way, it can be very helpful when trying to help those who do not have first-hand experience here garner understanding for those who struggle with suicide, but with a high cost in other ways. It's a both/and. And we have to follow both of those trails.
Another comment I have heard in the wake of this show's release is that “people need to figure this stuff out for themselves," but guess what? "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" was not a therapeutic model they taught me in either one of the nationally accredited Counseling Master's degree programs I have been a member of. NO, vulnerable populations, such as those who are suicidal, do not need baseline encouragement; they need real tools, and ANCHORS. THIS SHOW IS NOT AN ANCHOR. This show will tie an anchor to a suicidal person and drag them to the bottom of the ocean, where they will actually drown if they do not have the supports they need to resurface.
Here’s the thing: Netflix did not listen to the panel of psychologists who told them to not include certain things, so they are not going to listen to me. It’s out there. It’s been released into the wild. It just is.
But here’s the good news. This is one of my favorite side hustles because suicide is 100% preventable. This is a mountain I am willing to die on. Mine was prevented because Kaitlin Bailey sat on my bed during my sophomore year of college, and when I told her what was going on in my head, and why and how I wanted it to be over, she escorted me over to Health Services real quick and then my butt was on a medical leave of absence from Wofford – so I could recover. Hear me say this, loud and freaking clear: I am still alive today because someone gave me the permission, which was lacking from society-at-large, to go get help. This has everything to do with the presence of mental health stigma.
This is the boring part where I could throw a lot of statistics at you, but if you would like to review my research findings, with citations, because I read REAL JOURNALS, click here.
Basically, what I discovered is that there is an empirically-backed way to reduce stigma and get rid of the barriers that prevent people from getting help. And, it is not just talking about it. It is talking about it A CERTAIN WAY.
You have to get all of these things in the discussion:
A) the rock bottom part of the story
B) a resilience-building story from rock bottom, even if it does not “end” in “recovery”
C) available resources, whether global or specific to a community
My problem with 13 Reasons Why is that it literally only does Part A. It starts the conversation, gives you all of this dark – but real!!! – but still dark stuff, and then Season One is over. But here we are. It is on Netflix, and I can guarantee you that there is not a dang thing that we can do about that. So, because of this reality, we have to finish the rest of the arc I talked about.
And honestly, I am scared that this is just a fad.
This is a sexy Hollywood show with lots of pretty people in it. Is it still going to even be on our radar in 6 months? What are we going to tell all of the people whose struggles have been brought to the surface when this stuff is gone from our social media feeds, but they are still hurting? What are we going to do for those people? To protect and support them? Are we going to take their hands and find them supports, or are we going to get upset and make a statement, and then move on with our lives? We have a very huge opportunity right in front of us, y’all.
I’m gonna do the first one, and you should jump on that bandwagon with me REAL hard.
You can suggest ideas, and take actions – both are important, and the second one is faster.
1. If you are in GVL, come to this event. White Hot Party – it’s a benefit that I’m helping an event planner throw, and proceeds benefit NAMI Greenville. That might sound boring. We modeled it after Diddy’s white party, and the money from tickets goes straight to helping people in GVL with their mental health support. Your city probably has one, too. Find it. Ask them what they need.
Find your chapter here.
2. Come to therapy. I now, as of a week ago, work for a counseling practice that specializes in trauma and PTSD. Some of you have asked when I can take on clients. I talked to my mentor, and she says the answer is NOW. Send me all of your hurting people. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can just email me if you have a curiosity. You have to physically be in South Carolina for me to be your therapist. If you are not, I will find you another one of me. Or the Internet can. It could take some work to find one who is a good fit for what you need, but this is step one. Find one close to you.
3. If this has you wanting to share your story, please make sure you are ready to do that. I didn't share mine until I'd been through therapy and was in a safe place to yield questions from people, and possible adverse reactions from people who didn't quite understand my experience. I have lots more to say on that. There is so much power in sharing, but you have to make sure you are protected.
And then I'm gonna go figure out how to win the TED Prize, which would give me a million dollars to implement some sort of speaking/guided paradigm to implement mental health education in the schools -- because why not?
Basically, find out what the people around you need. There are ways you can do this pouring out of our ears, and they do not have to have a mental illness to be struggling -- it is our job to actually change the thing about the world that makes us feel like we cannot talk about things openly. Life is not Instagram. You do not actually have to put a pretty bow on all of the things -- we actually need each other to be real. After all, we belong to each other.
"We are all just walking each other home." -Ram Das
There are LOTS OF ARTICLES and responses to this show that pick it apart and name the problematic or beneficial elements much more in-depth. That was not my goal here; my aim was to make a call to action.
"13 Reasons Why": Tips for Viewing and Discussing (The Jed Foundation)
"13 Reasons Why" and Its Unintended Consequences (Brooke Fox, LCSW)