“Are you okay?”
How often do you hear those words? Have you ever heard someone say, “No. You know what? I’m not okay.” Our standard response when someone asks, regardless of whether or not it’s true, is, “I’m okay.”
Jay Asher wrote a book. It was later turned into a Netflix series, Thirteen Reasons Why. I just finished watching the story, and I have to say I’m unsettled. I’ve heard so many people talk about both the show and the book, and they usually say things like, “I refuse to watch it because it glamorizes suicide,” or, “I refuse to watch another teenage drama that glorifies high school crap.” And then I hear people talk about it who watched it all the way to the very last scene, and they usually have a different take on it. For me, my reaction was nausea, and—no, that was my reaction. Nausea. I literally felt sick at my stomach.
Why? Because I watched this very uncomfortable show and managed to fight the tempting urge to dismiss it and gritted my teeth long enough to get through it. It’s a story about a teenage girl who experienced bullying at school, the subsequent embarrassment and feelings of isolation, and eventually despair. Her pain spiked when she was assaulted by a fellow classmate, but finalized when the people she turned to for help didn’t hear what she was trying to tell them. She came from an ordinary home, with ordinary parents who loved her and supported her. Sure, they had their life struggles, but their daughter was a priority for them. Hannah made good decisions about boys and drugs. She didn’t sleep around. Only once did I notice her consuming alcohol, and that was in response to the pain of not fitting in and the desire to do so. She didn’t sneak around and get into trouble. She was a good kid. But, once she became the target of some boys at school (and their girlfriends), she fell into despair and ended her life.
Sure, there are elements in the TV show that are overly dramatized and likely exaggerated, but I think this story accurately reflects what our teens face in school. Every day. Without end. Within the social structure of an average school, you will find just about every type of kid represented in this story. The “cool kids” are desperate to remain cool, so they have their own form of bullying. The nerds are relentlessly harassed, both physically and emotionally. And everything in between. Girls face judgement from girls. Boys face judgment from boys. And they all judge each other. There are few, if any, safe places where teens can go for help or safety.
Recently, I attended a service for a fifteen-year-old boy who shot himself in the head after watching Thirteen Reasons Why. I seriously doubt the show caused him to commit suicide. No, pain caused him to commit suicide. In his life, whatever pain he was experiencing was so overwhelming that he felt he had no other options. When someone is depressed, his or her brain becomes unhealthy, and doesn’t process serotonin properly, which alters how a person reacts to crisis and pain. It’s as if that person has tunnel vision. No! It’s more like that person is looking through a straw. They can only see one solution, and they truly believe they are making the only choice possible. Killing themselves will end the pain. And everyone will be better off without them.
I know. I know! This doesn’t make sense to you, whose brain is processing serotonin properly. But to many people in pain, suicide is like a bell that rings with perfect clarity.
Let me make this a little more personal. I have a fourteen year old at home. You think I haven’t had this on my mind all week? I’ve had little else. I don’t know the circumstances in the other boy’s life which caused him to see suicide as his only option. And I wish I did. He sent a text message to his sister saying goodbye in the last seconds before his killed himself. She found him at home just a few minutes later. They don’t know why. They never saw it coming.
Hannah was a smart, fun, and pretty girl who smiled and laughed, and rarely allowed her pain to show. In fact, no one saw it coming. NO ONE! Only after Hannah revealed her reasons, the thirteen reasons, did the pieces come together. And in hindsight, it was painfully obvious. But only if you have all the pieces laid out before you. Each smaller piece didn’t tell enough of the story to see what was happening in her head.
Parents, your children are watching this show. I don’t mean to alarm you but—wait! Yes, I do mean to alarm you. WAKE UP! Your kids are watching this show. And we all know that the young are incredible at recording information, and the absolute worst at interpreting it. They very well may watch this show and relate to the pain Hannah was experiencing, and feel somewhat empowered by her courage to kill herself. Because they are looking through a straw and can’t see the big picture.
Okay, you’ve heard me. Now what? Well, I recommend you watch the show. All the episodes. Watch them by yourself first. And then invite your teen to watch it with you. And then talk to them about it. Have the suicide talk. You can do this!
Don’t accept the “I’m fine,” robot response. Hannah mentions how she stormed out of the school counselor’s office and paused just out of sight, praying that he would come after her, but he didn’t. And with that final element of disappointment, she followed through with slitting her wrists.
Seriously. You can do this. You can talk to your kids about suicide. They won’t enjoy it. Neither will you. But you might be surprised by what you talk about once you get the ball rolling.
One final thought about Thirteen Reasons Why, the Netflix series: I was praying the show would end, and the entire staff would come back on and do an anti-suicide talk, and recommend seeking help, but it didn’t happen. The show ended and went straight to the credits. This is a hard fail, Netflix. And it’s unacceptable.