Why I’m Afraid of Netflix’s New Hit Show: Imitative Suicide and 13 Reasons Why

After watching 13 Reasons Why, suicide has been all I can think about, in an unhealthy way. I’ve been watching the show despite it being incredibly triggering, because I keep being told to give it a chance. I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast about suicide (highly recommend Freakonomics if you’re into podcasts like me), and it was enlightening in that it talked about the issue that 13 Reasons Why has been making me fear the most – imitative suicide.

One of the most intriguing cases of imitative suicide with the most telling results happening in Austria in in the second half of 1987. Because of high profile coverage of suicides on the Viennese subway, there was a huge jump in imitative suicides. To address this problem, the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention developed media guidelines about to address suicide, what images to show, and how to better prevent further instances. By changing the way that the Austrian media talks about suicide, there was a dramatic decrease in suicides in Austria. However, is censoring media coverage of suicide only furthering the problems with the stigma that surrounds suicide? Does starting the conversation about suicide and preventing suicide always have to be head-to-head?

For a short answer to that big question, I would say no. I’ve had successful experiences in small groups facilitating discussions about suicide prevention and I’ve seen it done on the media, in social settings, in the classroom, etc. 13 Reasons Why does provide an important conversation about bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, and my problems with the show aside, the cast is incredibly talented and diverse. Yet the show, in my opinion, is dangerous. My opposition to the show does not mean that I think suicide should remain silent and taboo – in fact, I’ve spoken out against the suicide taboo many times – but is a critique on the way that suicide is addressed in this show.

Graphic depictions of suicide lead to increases in suicide (again, listen to that Freakonomics podcast!). It’s not a controversial opinion; there is data that backs up these findings. When I first read the book, I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, and was just beginning to be influenced by mental illness and anxiety. I was hoping that a book about suicide, a topic that had been creeping into my mind, would help me better understand what I was going through. It only made me feel worse, and I can’t imagine what seeing a visual representation of the story would do to a person watching the show who is experiencing suicidal or self-harming thoughts. Granted, there are content warnings before more brutal or heavy episodes. But I know that I wouldn’t have paid much attention to them when I was younger, because I didn’t fully understand what I was going through.

Suicide cannot be riddled down to thirteen reasons or thirteen people. It’s complicated and complex. If you’re interested in the complexities, reach out to me, I’ve got access to a lot of resources and scholarship.

I am glad that the show decided to take on such an important topic, but am unhappy about the ways in which the topic was portrayed. I believe there could have  been more of an effort to talk about mental health and prevention. I know that the story is about a girl who was bullied, not mentally ill, and that thousands of suicides occur because of bullying. But I’m thinking about the impact here –  it is so difficult to access information about mental illness as a young person, especially if they are just beginning to experience mental illness, and this show is triggering to a point far beyond what I was expecting.

I know that I can’t speak for everyone. But my experiences are certainly relevant. I was bullied throughout my life – I was a bossy little kid who liked to read and would brag about my spelling test scores. Of course kids were mean to me. “Ditching” me on the playground was a game at recess – I wouldn’t go to the bathroom during the day because everytime I did, I would come out and my friends would be gone. In  middle and high school, friends talked about me behind my back frequently. Granted, we all talked about one another behind each other’s backs – but words affected me in a way that they didn’t affect everyone else. I had friends turn on me and break my heart. So yeah, I was bullied.

And on top of that, I had traumatic experiences with grief and loss and mental illness going on. So suicide is a familiar topic for me, as I’ve been in the position of feeling suicidal and I’ve dedicated a lot of my research and extracurricular experiences to suicide prevention and awareness.

I’ve seen a lot of articles and talked to a lot of people who have expressed concern with 13 Reasons Why – who feel it doesn’t represent the whole of feeling suicidal and feel that it portrays a false and dangerous message: If you kill yourself, everyone will feel bad about it and regret ever being mean to you. Even as someone who is no longer high-risk, the thought of everyone who was ever mean to me or pushed me aside feeling bad about it is appealing. And that terrifies me. If it’s appealing to me, how appealing is it to young people who are high-risk? Or are starting to have inklings of suicidal thoughts?

Yes, the show is addicting. Yes, there is phenomenal acting and representation in the show, which I don’t want to overlook at all. Maybe the show just isn’t made for people like me, who have had close experiences with suicide. But I think it’s safe to say that, if this show is having such a profound and terrifying effect on me, it’s having a profound and terrifying effect on many people. And the mere fact that so many people who identify as mentally disabled, have experience with suicide, or have experience with bullying are expressing discontent with this show demonstrates that there’s a problem. Obviously, not everyone with these experiences is expressing that there is a problem. But enough of them are.

I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to like the show, regardless of your relationship to suicide. I’m happy that there are people who have expressed love and healing that have come from this story. I’m so happy that it has facilitated a discussion about suicide, rape, and bullying.

I’m trying to say that, just  because you like the show, doesn’t mean you should discount the voices of people who are expressing concern. Do not label them as sensitive or easily triggered – I think I’ve made it quite clear that I’m not afraid to talk about suicide. My voice, and the voices of everyone else expressing concern, mean something, and that deserves to be heard and validated.

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Because I think talking about suicide and hearing stories about suicide is so important, here are a list of some of the better books that I have read that I think approach the issue in a much more accurate and less triggering way:

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Hold Still by Nina LaCour

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

 

 

 

Why We Don’t Talk About Suicide

Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States of America. Suicide rates have been increasing. Countries with national suicide prevention programs have seen decreased suicide rates, but it’s still not doing enough, considering the frequency with which I see a new post or article about someone’s love one who passed away at their own hand. What’s going on with this? What are the prevention programs not doing? Why is this still a problem?

I’ve been doing a lot of research. I’ve been studying current suicide prevention programs as well as the history of suicide and the stigma around it. The stigma appeared with the emergence of Christianity, for to kill oneself was to kill God’s gift. Despite medical advances that have informed us that no, suicidal behavior is not a correlation with demonic possession but instead a serious mental disorder, this stigma still infiltrates itself into society, hiding in the nooks and crannies of every institution. But you know what many of the programs we have in society today are not doing? Talking about it.

It’s about time suicide was normalized. Children need to be exposed to what it is and what causes it so that they can be aware of the signs as they could appear in their peers or themselves. People need to be equipped to fight suicidal thoughts. I’m tired of hearing the room fall silent every time I bring up suicide in conversation. The first step is understanding it. If we don’t teach people to understand mental illness, then the problem will never be fixed. Talk, talk, talk! That’s all I’m asking. Destroy the stigma!

Shout about Suicide

As many of you have probably gathered from the title, this post isn’t going to be particularly light-hearted. Which I know is a bit of a bold move considering this is my first post, but I hope that it can draw in attention. This is a topic that needs to be addressed.

Suicide is tabooed. It’s one of those things that people just don’t talk about. Yet, suicide is the #10 cause of death in the United States. I actually find myself cringing typing this because I can’t believe that, even after losing so many valuable people to suicide, NOBODY TALKS ABOUT IT.

So that’s why I figured, why not start something? Why not…shout about it?

To start things off, I want to establish something. I do not believe that suicide is entirely a choice. Depression attaches itself to people and eats away at their lives. Suicide does not necessarily mean that the person wanted to die, but it means that they could no longer live the way they were, with depression or anxiety or sadness or oppression ripping them to pieces day after day. And so, the next person that says “it’s their fault, they decided to kill themselves” will get virtually slapped by me because you sir/ma’am, are completely incorrect.

I do not think that the matter of suicide can be fixed. Mental illness is inevitable. And many people understand this too: since mental illnesses are often hard to diagnose or let alone see in people, the ultimate decision that humanity has come to, from my experience, is to…ignore it. Now, how is that going to help anything? We need to talk about it.

I can say this from personal experience: when a person is having suicidal thoughts, yet feels as though they can’t talk to anybody about it without being threatened to be shipped off to a mental hospital, it gets pretty damn scary. Although suicide should NEVER be taken lightly, it should not be such a scary topic that we avoid it at all costs. The first step is to take down the stereotype of mental illness and make not just the counselors office but instead all of your surroundings a safe place to talk about suicide. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, tell someone. And if somebody tells you they’re having suicidal thoughts, don’t freak out on them, just listen. Let them know it’s okay.

I want to start a movement. A movement that sweeps the nation, which is probably going to be hard, considering I’m a quiet girl from Seattle spending time on her blog instead of doing her schoolwork (college life…). Shout about Suicide. It has a nice ring to it. People need to spread the word, people need to make it okay to have conversations about suicide because way too many lives have been lost due to people becoming so afraid and so isolated by what they are feeling. Talk about it, shout about it, hell, you can even whisper about it. I just need to make the world so that one day I can live in a place where the topic of suicide doesn’t make the entire room fall silent and bite their nails.