Warning: May contain spoilers.
On March 31st, the long anticipated series 13 Reasons Why made its way to Netflix. 13 Reasons Why is about a high school student who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes, each dedicated to a person who she says is part of the reason that she killed herself. It quickly became popular. One would think I would be happy- after all, it is a time for those of us who have finished high school to look back and see how mean we were and perhaps learn from it, right? Well, actually, there are two problems.
First, I have seen people making memes out of the show in ways that treat it like it’s just any fandom, as opposed to one that centers itself around a serious issue. Now let me be clear: I am not saying that I am for censoring everything about the show. And yes, I know very well that others shows with fandoms tackle serious topics as well. However, they do not necessarily center around those topics. Besides, given the seriousness of the show, the people I know post these as a way to show that they are into the show, which to them is synonymous for caring about the issue of suicide. And I have trouble believing that many of them do. My reasoning? I know them from high school and junior high.
People can change and I do not deny it. However, I look back at how they dealt with me and wonder when people change, if at all. I have autism spectrum disorder. They caught on when I was just developmentally delayed in elementary school and being pulled out of class for extra-help. They decided this made me “stupid” and laughed. We live in a world that mistreats people with intellectual disabilities, thinks intellectual disabilities are the same thing as autism, and therefore make fun of autism. We shouldn’t be making fun of people for these things they cannot control, but we always do it and we always find way to justify it.
In jr. high after my developmental delays were “overturned”, but before I was diagnosed with autism (which does not mean the symptoms were not present), people did not want to stop making fun of me so they found other things to make fun of, including my decidedly “ugly” appearance. People were joking about me killing myself. The interesting part is that I never expressed suicidal thoughts to anybody, so it is implied that they just thought it was a joke without any meaning behind it. Even if it did apply to me personally it still is not funny. The question could be asked: Why would they make fun of me for having autism? That question would arise in particular because they were nice to the kids who were “lower-functioning” (I hate that term. It seems to be used in contexts of comparison). So why were they not nice to me? Why did they not notice my symptoms? And the answer is that they probably did. Many of them also probably knew what they were characteristic of. But even if they did, nobody wanted to admit that I had autism. There is a difference. That difference is the result of the fact that they did not want to even think that I could have the impairment because that would make them feel bad and reconsider their actions, which it takes a lot of vulnerability to do. They wanted desperately to believe that I was just weird. Nobody is ever just weird.
And now most of the people that called me “retarded” are special education majors. None of them know.
My second of the two qualms that I have about this show is also mentioned in the talking point statement made by the JED Foundation and the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and endorsed by our school’s counseling center. There is an argument to be made about the fact that suicide should not be portrayed as it is in the show (depicting the actual act). It is said that the portrayal could even lead to more suicides. Additionally, the entire story surrounding Hannah’s suicide can be seen as glamorizing suicide. This point is especially concerning given that her recordings help bring a rapist to justice and she encourages people to get back at her stalker. The talking points use the word “heroic” to explain how some people might view her suicide as a result. Instead of viewing it as heroic, they say, we should view it as the tragedy that it is. I also agree with the talking points about the idea that “talking to people from beyond the grave” is another form of glamorization often used in TV shows and movies. In real life, that does not happen. Even if it did, the person who made the tapes would not be able to see the reactions of people as they view the tapes, so there would be no proof that it “worked”. Instead, there would be proof that there are healthier ways to go about dealing with pain. Personally, I do not think that people will focus knowingly on this part of the show and think “hmm… I am going to go through with it because it seems heroic!” That would be oversimplifying the problem. Most likely, nobody will view it and explicitly cite the act of tape making as a cause for their thoughts of glamorizing suicide. If anything, the thoughts would occur due to the tone of the show and its book, which the plot contributes to. Regardless, it is difficult to trace the cause of one’s views. On a similar note, it is difficult to trace the cause of suicide because it is a complex issue and cannot necessarily be chalked up solely to external factors such as bullying.
Which brings me to my next point: I am very worried about making this statement. People who glamorize the show will most likely say that I am victim blaming when I say that psychological factors could result in suicide (as opposed to simply external factors). They might accuse me of saying that the characters in that show were not mean and siding with them. Some might even go as far to call me a bully myself. However, I acknowledge that their bullying did not help and probably contributed a little. But not everyone who is bullied commits suicide. Therefore, it is because of a perfect storm/combination of these factors that suicide could result. I leave this disclaimer because though many characters in this show are terrible people- some more intentionally than others- there are people in real life who are in their shoes. Not all of those people are bullies; some of them are close friends. They all blame themselves and do not deserve to, so they should know that it is not entirely their fault. Nevertheless, they might still blame themselves simply because the person who committed suicide did not open up to them. It is hard to know the little things that we do to unnerve people or invalidate people. Even if these things are not part of a serious topic such as suicide, the person considering it might think about them when deciding to disclose.
Remember when I said that none of the people I went to high school with that called me “retarded” and became Special Education majors knows I have autism? One of them, however, started to catch on a little and displaced her anger at herself onto me. My advice on matters like this is that we just need to do better. We are too busy living our own lives to realize what other people are going through. Even when we pick up on symptoms, we do not always know what they are symptoms of, so we wind up not being able to solve the problem. Many of us are problem solvers and we need to realize that sometimes it is impossible to solve problems, especially if we do not know what to look for. And we are not always going to know what to look for. Instead of getting angry at ourselves or others, we just need to learn from our mistakes and do better. It is easier said than done at first, but that should be our aim.
I have interviewed Tom Miebach, a clinical counselor and crisis triage case manager at the University of Illinois Counseling Center. He has informed me of some signs we can all look out for in order to spot students in distress. For instance, one indicator could be drastic change in behavior (e.g. withdrawing when one is usually sociable, being sociable and energetic when one is usually withdrawn). This may also be accompanied by expressions of hopelessness and/or suicidal thoughts and changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Many people in distress appear sad, but this is not always the case. Therefore, knowing all of these signs is important when considering distress. In order to help, we can listen non-judgmentally and validate their feelings. Given that we could easily invalidate someone without knowing it, words do not always work, which is why it is also necessary to make sure that our actions agree with our words. We can show the want to support by spending time with someone we think is distressed, and through helping them find out resources and educating ourselves. Finally, it is acceptable to acknowledge that we do not know everything. Not everybody works in the field of mental health. If we need to, we should redirect them to a professional while making sure that they know we are still willing to listen.
Miebach recommends the books Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison and Why People Die By Suicide by Thomas Joiner for more information.
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Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals and their families. ACE, Active Centralized Empowerment and Inc. cannot be used without the written permission from Dr. Janice Marie Collins.