“I think my friend has attempted suicide” an 11-year-old child haltingly admitted after I introduced myself as a crisis counselor with a national hotline and asked how I could help.* As I listened over the next half hour, I learned that this child and her friend had been facing ongoing cyber- and face-to-face bullying at school that was such a common occurrence the caller sounded nonchalant. In the middle of my assessment, this young person received a text from her friend saying that she was okay and had been upset last night because of a fight with her family. They agreed to meet before school in an hour, a ritual they had created to steal themselves for another day of routine harassment by their peers.
Near the end of the call, I learned that the 11-year-old had also recently been contemplating suicide and had almost swallowed a bottle of Tylenol the week before. She brought up the controversial TV show “13 reasons why” as one of the reasons she had not taken the pills (“I hadn’t finished it yet!”) and reported increasing conversations with others at school about the show. Contrary to the professional and public outcry on the harm the show was causing, at this young person’s school it seems that it was giving kids a chance to vent about their own experience of suicidal thoughts and bullying. We ended the call with a plan that the child would check in with her counselor at school that day, give her friend our number, and call us back before acting on thoughts of ending her life. While it didn’t feel like I could do enough to support this young person in one phone call to buffer her in such a brutal sounding social environment, I knew our conversation was an opening for a new place that felt safe to talk about what troubles her. (She also had chosen to remain anonymous, which limited my options in assisting her beyond what I had already done.)
A specific part of this bullying story still haunts me. A few days before, a peer at school had taken the 11-year-old’s phone from her when she wasn’t looking and used it to send a text (AFTER the caller and her friend had argued!) pretending to be the caller. The peer had texted something to the equivalent of “We are no longer friends and you should kill yourself.” I asked the caller if she had told anybody about this and she said she had shown the text to the counselor at school who had responded “well, that wasn’t a very nice thing to do” and left it at that. The violence intended in this text makes me shudder inside, and the way the school counselor responded, albeit through the memory of an 11-year-old, is also such a testament to how numb and/or overwhelmed our educators and those meant to model positive communication and hold the line around bullying behavior in these settings are to the increasingly malicious psychological wounding between our youth.
Since 13 Reasons Why was released, I have been talking with other youngsters including many teens who are calling the crisis hotline and referencing it, and many of them seem to feel extremely validated by what is depicted. At the same time I have felt confused to see the increasing warnings by healthcare professionals (especially those in my profession: psychology) who have been calling for this TV series to be banned from public consumption. While I am familiar with the statistics behind their statements of concern for spreading the wrong message to teens and I empathize with their fears about normalizing or romanticizing suicide, I wonder if we have forgotten or neglected to listen to the conversations teens were already having before this show was released. From watching posts in my own social media community, I can see that the show is triggering for adults to see partly because they have buried memories of how they bullied and were bullied in school and they don’t know how to join with the story without finding themselves too horrified to see their own versions of their past flashing back and haunting them. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a variety of adults in a variety of roles talk about how they “survived” their lower educational experience. Or how many times the advice for teens is routinely and earnestly given to “just get through it alive.” I have even seen a variety of social media posts by mental healthcare professionals at every level judging the show as “sickening” and “glorifying suicide” while they also admit that they weren’t able to watch the show to the end. This means they missed the part where there is a half hour discussion by the actors about what it was like to play the characters, and the strong message repeatedly emphasized of the importance of not being alone if one is thinking of ending their life. The show concludes with a variety of options explained on getting and offering help.
Most importantly, without watching this show to the very end, there is no way they can understand the message beneath this series, which, by the way, the teens I’ve spoken with on suicide hotlines seem to be getting loud and clear! The story is not about the young woman who killed herself. The beginning and end are about the evolution of the bystander from watching to doing, and also hints at what I believe is the responsibility we all hold as a community when someone in it chooses to end their life. As the proverb goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and I would add, it also takes a village to destroy one. I, for one, was impressed in many ways with the heart and honesty of this show. It’s not perfect by any means. For example, you learn in the end that the main character who is bullying is never allowed to hear the tapes calling him out on his actions (which further villainizes a very ill young man and makes him an excluded and beyond redemption character). However, I believe the show is very real in terms of what most youth are facing in schools today, and according to multiple teens calling the hotlines I serve, has allowed and encouraged those who have never called suicide hotlines before to reach out on behalf of themselves and their friends.
When I’m not taking crisis calls, I frequently work with an organization called Stand for Courage on changing the negative focus on bullying to redirecting youth towards collaboration and celebrating diversity. This TV show’s message of speaking with and up for the disenfranchised among us is the essence of what the positive-focused anti-bullying organization I work with is all about—empowering youth to create a new conversation together by listening and connecting through the diverse perspectives of their peers. Many of the youth I have been speaking with on the crisis line have found their voice around suicide partly because of the show 13 Reasons Why, and like the 11-yr-old described above are courageously reaching out to help their peers and themselves! They are not staying silent anymore and watching those who have been pushed too far retaliate by hurting themselves or others (and continuing the bullying cycle). These youth are trying to finally not be the bystander we all feel that we are when we watch the show. Stand for Courage is about empowering the bystander to Stand Up. Step In. Speak Up, and Stand for Courage.
As a mental health professional, activist for reinventing our conversation around bullying, and human being who can own that I have been the bystander, the bully, and target many times throughout my life, my invitation is this: Instead of attempting to ban this show out of protective beliefs that teens cannot handle watching it without going off and ending their own lives, consider that it might be keeping them alive by creating a new dialogue around a sensitive and easy to avoid subject that connects us all to a much bigger problem than one youth, classroom, school, or community has alone! Instead of saying what you as an adult believe about suicide, ask the young person in your life what they believe… and then listen!
Above all, my hope is that as adults we will continue to grow in our abilities to be curious, listen, and then speak up when we see and hear the courage of our young people sharing a perspective on something that is often so hard to discuss. I find that many youth have given this topic much more thought than you or I ever had too when we were their age. There is wisdom and resiliency in their persistence to keep breathing and trying again each day when faced with such misunderstood misery inflicted by and through their peers. Here are few ways that I am practicing listening better and ways that you can support young people in speaking up:
- Practice empathizing with the pain they have likely witnessed, inflicted, and received from their classmates.
- Find the right moment to ask them how they keep finding their voice even when they have thoughts of harming themselves or others.
- Offer support and ask if they would be willing to talk to you about this topic again if things get worse.
- If you’re worried about a specific young person, call a crisis hotline yourself, and ask for advice on being a supportive adult in the young person’s life. (As a crisis counselor, I love the calls that prevent the crisis from happening, and prepare for it if it does!)
- Be honest when the topic is triggering you instead of deciding that teens cannot handle conversations about death.
- The point is: trust your instincts and above all stay curious.
I believe that with these things in mind the connections that come through open dialogue with adults and teens will lead to discovering 13 reasons and more on why we all chose to keep living on and will help each of us try harder to find those who feel they have lost their voice and remind them that they are seen and heard.
For more information on joining the conversation, check out the links below:
*Details of this story have been changed to protect the identity of the caller and come from a variety of calls and encounters I’ve had as a mental healthcare professional.