Monday Musings….13 Paragraphs on 13 Reasons Why...

By now, the hype given the Netflix original series examining youth suicide has died down, no pun intended. That very fact speaks volumes regarding the incredible lack of understanding we have about mental health and how little time and energy is spent getting into the headspace of teenagers. Our culture ignites with passionate pleas when taboo topics such as suicide are brought to the forefront by the media, and then….how quickly we move on to another distraction… like did Prince Harry bring his actress girlfriend to Pippa’s wedding? Really?

So while you may think that I am late to the discussion table, I actually think I am right on time. Suicide, particularly youth suicide, is a discussion that should never go away. And the fact that it has, is exactly the message I got from the episodes.

Who is listening to youth? Who really cares about them? What are we doing, we adultier adults, to understand and then move our ideas into action to save lives? They are looking to us for answers, but we keep coming up short. So here is what has been going on in my headspace, as I watched the episodes of “13 Reasons Why” over a one week period.

First, I have been asked whether this is a good thing for young people to watch. Well, it’s too late. They already have. Youth are always 5 steps ahead of anything their parents are tuned in to. So, if this is true of your child, and they have watched it, don’t chastise them, or worry excessively that they will become suicidal. It’s a great opportunity to have a deep conversation. Problem is, if you have never had a deep discussion, you’ll be hard pressed to get more than a 5 minute superficial chat. And that is an excellent point that is evidently made in the movie. My only concern here, with the intended audience, is that if someone is really struggling, particularly with the issues revealed in the episodes, then yes, it would be unwise for them watch it. It most definitely can trigger camaraderie with little defense tactics for better options.

The episodes are exceptionally scripted (staying fairly true to the book from what I have heard) and the cast is brilliantly chosen. Each character is relatable and believable. We all know a Hannah, Clay, Jessica, Justin or Bryce. And so, as mentioned above, the relatability factor may lend itself to identification with a character without a different coping strategy. However, for me, I loved how it dealt with real issues and, most importantly, that we got to see their experiences through their eyes. Their perceptions of the adults in their lives - parents, teachers, counsellors - were absolutely valid. Seeing how they view us is probably one of the greatest motivations for watching it.

The portrayal of the pain the various teenagers feel is so accurate. It is raw and it is profound, and what we notice is that the anguish and turmoil take place in the shadows of their minds. They are floating through life, holding a ton of thoughts and feelings in their headspace with not a lot of opportunity to escape them except through lies, alcohol, or drugs as they try to cope. These are the kids that no one suspects are struggling. On the surface they are the good students, the athletes, members of the poetry or photography clubs.

Bottom line in this series is the lesson about relationships. The whole test of friendship, the paramount focus of youth, is strained to the max. We all need meaningful relationships where we can risk being open and honest. The problem for teens and adults is that we are so wrapped up in our own worlds that we simply don’t give the proper time to creating and building solid friendships, even with those who are in our immediate circle. We are all distracted with the same worries that Hannah has, namely: needing acceptance and approval for who we are and that what we do actually matters to other people. “Do you like me?” “What do you think of me?” But it’s what we do with the experiences that come our way that determines how healthy our headspace really is. It’s like we are all on this suspension bridge trying to hang on and move forward, but the water beneath us is precarious and we are constantly in danger of falling. Some of us will hang on and make it across, and others, believing they’ve run out of options, will be pulled by gravity and plummet. For so many, this need for external approval is huge and they believe it is the critical factor that will keep them stable. But people can be cruel, or thoughtless, or emotionally unavailable, and so the bridge begins to swing the person off balance. Then the pressure of fear and doubt, guilt and shame, builds internally and the trickle of utter disappointment becomes a waterfall of failure that spreads to all areas of life until it floods the brain into believing that nothing we do matters. No one can save us and so, we rationalize, that it is better to simply bail out of this life and drown.

Spoiler alert: So how much can one handle before the only solution is death? This series does a great job of showing the cumulative effect of experiences and how they take a toll. This is a very important lesson to learn. Suicide is not always caused by the unbearable symptoms of mental illness. More often, we are noting suicides being completed by those who have had no history of mental illness. As a clinician watching the series, I did not observe the symptoms of clinical depression; acute stress disorder, maybe, major depressive episode, no. This is important because it speaks to the need to better educate people on the fact that people without diagnoses are at risk for suicide as well, given the cumulative factor of stressful events. Hannah has a series of experiences that she tries to manage. They become progressively more intense until the second last episode. The scene is absolutely brutal, physically and psychologically. It masterfully depicts how her mind has to take over so that she can dissociate from the reality of the horror she is experiencing and that she feels helpless to flee. Remember, you can never un-see what you have seen, and all who watch this episode will be impacted by the repulsion of how cruel humanity can be to its own kind. Watch at your discretion. It is an extraordinarily accurate depiction of real events that far too many people have experienced. It truly gives us an important insight into what it feels like and what goes through someone’s mind as they reach the breaking point of their will to live.

There are two things I want to comment on, that I feel need more discussion. The first is, how can we help, if the person won’t tell us what’s wrong or if they push us away? In the series we hear about Hannah’s ‘wish’ statements, as they relate to her telling people to leave her alone, only to lament that she wanted them to talk to her. None of us are mind readers and when someone swears at you to go away or when they leave your office saying they “need to get on with things”, what can the person they are pushing out of their way do, especially when attempts were made to talk further? If they would have pursued her, as she apparently wanted, they ran the risk of being called aggressive. If they didn’t go after her, well then, they didn’t care enough. This is where you really feel for those left behind. There IS no easy answer. There is no easy way to know what to do to help, even if you are a trained counsellor. (Did the counsellor miss some clues or say the wrong thing? Yes, but that’s another discussion.) And so, those left behind, now struggle with the “if only”s. We ALL screw up at times as friends, as parents, and also as professionals. But there is some responsibility on the person’s part to help the helper understand. It’s not about blaming anyone; it’s about communicating needs and making, not simply taking, the time to listen.

Secondly, there has been lots of talk about how we should treat people with kindness. It’s not that simple to assume that extending kindness will be the determining factor to save a life. We’ve all heard the locker story about how a simple gesture of thoughtfulness made someone reconsider a fatal choice. But how many acts of kindness have not prevented a death? We see a person in the last episode intersect with Hannah, but it is not enough. The cumulative effect of her fears cannot be side tracked by one kind person. It’s not enough. We can’t tell people to think of other options. They’ve already played them out in their mind. We have to scale back months, and years, and build a solid foundation to weather the future storms that are sure to come in life. And that foundation cannot be in people, because they will let us down. Hannah had great parents. Random acts of kindness are fantastic but rarely life changing or life affirming. They work in the moment until the best friend lies to you, you unintentionally lose a significant amount of money, or your reputation is tarnished on social media. Now don’t stop being kind - that’s not what I’m saying. It’s that as a society we have to take stock of how we are building strength for the journey, mentally and physically. It boils down to expectations and pressures and how that combo can become toxic. Random acts of kindness are just that – one offs. Nice in the moment but the reality of life’s stressors will quickly come back in and overshadow that moment of bliss.

At the point of suicide the person is alone. No one fully understands that final moment before the death plunge. Even if there are tapes or a note. There will always be a lot of unanswered questions. It’s interesting that a week after the funeral no one asks anymore about the person or their family. The Facebook condolences stop. The locker is cleaned out and a new person fills the spot. The check-ins to see how you are doing end. Everyone is alone. Life just carries on…until we hear of the next death. Then the rallying cries begin again and lots of press releases scream for change. But nothing changes. Why? Because all we do is talk. Who is it that is going to do something, particularly for youth? Anyone? Or will it remain an issue confined to solitary?

Well, you may be thinking, that was a depressing read! Umm…that’s what’s been in my headspace. And mixed with that are the hundreds of statements I have been reading over the last few weeks as my two year project with the high schools comes to a close. Watching the series was very important for me as it validated so much of what the youth in my study are saying: “There’s no one I trust.” “I don’t want to be judged or looked at differently.” “I’m told: I’m overreacting. It’s pointless. I have nothing to be upset about.” “Everyone’s got their own problems, mine don’t matter to them. They just tell me what’s wrong instead of listening.”

The Netflix series caused a stir. Let’s not let it settle. The issues are still there. They are everywhere. Let’s listen, build some trust, and show them this is so important to us that we WILL move beyond discussion towards direct plans for change!

Give a listen to “More than Gravity” by Colin & Caroline, from the movie soundtrack.

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