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'13 Reasons Why' Should Spark a Conversation About Bullying

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“13 Reasons Why” is a Netflix series set in high school, beginning in the aftermath of a student — Hannah Baker — taking her own life. Before she takes this final step, she records herself talking about the events and bullying that led to her decision, leaving her family and friends dealing with issues of accountability and missed opportunities to intervene.

Thankfully the portrayal of people with mental ill-health in the media has improved generally, but until very recently, subjects like this were avoided, or covered with sensationalized headlines about “psycho murderers” that only served to worsen stigma. Using film and TV to explore these kinds of issues can help balance out some of the misinformation that mainstream press peddles — it can dig beneath the headlines and make people think about the causes of mental illness and how the right treatment can be the key to preventing tragedy. The more we talk about these issues directly, the more we enable people to ask for help when they need it, which can only be a good thing

Bullying isn’t just limited to school — it goes on in every walk of life, in every age group and culture. There are always going to be people who look for any weakness in another person and seek to use that to hurt or manipulate them in order to get something they want — usually some kind of self-validation, especially in the school setting. Even in the absence of any physical harm, the slow chipping away of self-esteem that happens as a result of long-term verbal bullying can be immensely damaging. There’s still a perception that “stick and stones may break my bones but word will never hurt me,” which I was certainly taught during school. That made my own experience much harder to cope with. This is the kind of draconian logic that keeps bullying alive and well in our seemingly civilized society.

My own story of being bullied through school was daily verbal abuse, low-level shoving, damaging clothing and property, and threats of violence. It never let up, so no matter what I did I knew I had to go into that environment every weekday when all I wanted to do was learn. The negative effects began as severe panic attacks at night, which caused vomiting and led to me being prescribed medication aged 14. I remember getting into bed at night and just instantly feeling waves of nausea, then I would often spend the night on the bathroom floor after retching until I was exhausted. It broke me down to the point where I had frequent suicidal thoughts, developed anorexia and self-harmed. I never quite fit into a friendship group and friends frequently “broke up” with me under pressure from the bullies. I don’t blame them for that self-preservation — people suffered just for being seen with me.

Despite many teachers seeing this going on, no action was taken. Then one day, as I walked through the parking lot to go home, two cars pulled up and six men got out with one girl who had threatened me. They got baseball bats out of the back and surrounded me. I was laughing in shock — the fact that adult men would collude in this kind of behavior still amazes me. After this charade, she then approached me and held out her hand to shake mine, obviously completely disingenuously. I can only assume this was a show of power — she wanted me to know she could have me badly hurt if she wanted to.

Bullying can be covert and not immediately obvious even to those who are in close proximity while it’s happening. Now, more than ever, it can be almost anonymous. The internet provides a convenient hiding place for people to abuse others — social media allows bullies to hide in amongst other commentators who may say things on a one-off basis that in isolation seem OK. But one off comments can give rise to exactly the sort of validation that bullies might be looking for and make them want to keep doing it. When I was at school we were told bullies had bad home lives or personal issues themselves, and that those circumstances were what drove them to abuse others. They were able to get a sense of control and power back by inflicting that pain on someone else. Internet bullying is no different, except it’s far more immediate and far easier to do with a lot less guilt. If you never have to face the person, you can probably convince yourself they’re not a thinking, feeling human being. There’s a degree of separation that wasn’t there before we had virtual lives. When online communication is an extension of school life, there’s never any time in a day when people can’t get to a victim. What was an issue for the duration of the school day becomes an issue 24 hour of every day, with an audience. Every facet of someone’s life can be affected — employment, family, search results that can never be erased. What might take just a minute of impulsivity on the part of a bully may affect a victim for the rest of their lives.

Social media curates reality so that any chink in our self-confidence becomes a gaping hole; nothing is proportional online because of the lack of other cues we would be getting from interacting face to face. Add to this the unrealistic way we’re presenting ourselves as flawless, ambitious, successful and physically perfect and it’s easy to see how self-esteem is hard to come by for young people. Even those who claim to be about self-confidence are constantly hammering home the need to be improving ourselves, because we’re not good enough just as we are.

When I first started watching “13 Reasons Why,” I thought about whether anybody can really be to blame when someone takes their own life. They talk about accountability throughout the series; Hannah’s close friend, it seems, is unfairly punished simply because he didn’t feel able to express his feelings towards her, but what could the alternatives have been? Whilst I don’t want to minimize how painful relationships breaking down can be, I recoil from the idea that our happiness depends on someone else’s love.

As much as others’ actions can damage us and trigger mental health problems, is it realistic to attribute blame for suicide like that?

There’s a chance that even a lack of interaction could be catalyst — things that might normally seem perfectly innocuous can become sinister for someone feeling that hopeless. Being in pain every day isn’t tolerable for many people. But equally it might only take one person offering to listen and to hear them for them to step back and reconsider. That’s perhaps the core message of the show — that a non-judgmental listener can become a life-saver.

Follow this journey on The White Pariah.

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Originally published: June 17, 2018
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