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TV Shows About Suicide Start the Conversation – but We Have to Finish It

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

I am all of the mixed feelings about “13 Reasons Why.”

If you live under a rock, “13 Reasons Why” is a Netflix series that, in a nutshell, walks you through a high school girl’s suicide plan, ending in her actual suicide, which they show. It has made so many of you angry for so many reasons, and so many of you have also been motivated by it to treat people with more kindness — there are positive and negative things to sift through.

Suicide is something I take very seriously. My expertise in this is two-prong. Yes, I have my own experience with suicidal feelings. I am also a counselor who has worked with high school students in the trenches of stuff. My point is that I have lived this, and I have worked to resolve it (as much as is responsible to claim — you never know what will trigger you), and then I have walked people through it in therapy. I can, albeit with limitations, see both sides of this thing.

I love that “13 Reasons Why” has catapulted us into having such a dynamic conversation about suicide, but I hate that it has done it in a way that is so unsafe for so many people. And what’s more — I am seeing a lot of talking, and not a lot of doing. The people who are hurting, people who are experiencing suicidal feelings, they need us to be just as much talk, with even more action. Where is the action? Yes, it starts the conversation, but it really leaves you hanging if you are in a place where you are not ready for its contents.

Simply put, I, and experts who are a lot smarter than I am, think that the release was irresponsible, and the triggering nature of some of the scenes is reckless. It should have been more shepherded — a guided watch, not an uncontrolled substance.

Yes, this series is getting people talking about suicide, and every piece of my heart says hooray to that. But — and hang with me here — this show being released into the wild on Netflix feels similar to temping someone with an addiction. We have to realize that some people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts do not have the proper supports in place to keep them safe. This show is a catalyst in some good ways and some bad ways. We have started a conversation, but we have also put a lot of people at risk at the same time.

I have heard from well over 100 people with personal narratives on how this show is a trigger for them in some way. Here are some of the things that you brave people have shared with me:

“I have severe depression and anxiety and that show messed with me. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts but that show made it look like a pretty easy alternative.”

“I had a situation with my mom last year and the ending brought back a lot of feelings that I wasn’t prepared for.”

And if I may cut to the chase:

“If I had watched this show at that age (high school, college, freshly graduated), it would have [hurt me]. I was so angry, and so vengeful. If I had seen the beautiful Hannah Baker [kill herself] in gorgeous lighting, with sweet music in the background, and watched all her enemies suffer her revenge, [I would have been influenced.] I know that isn’t the point of the books, but the show executes it so melodramatically, and with such… style, that it would have been irresistible. I was sick.”

This is actual, valid, ethnographic research. These are reactions from real people with real feelings.

I will say that the producers did some CYA and made a follow-up documentary. It’s called “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons” and it actually pops up right beside the show when you search the title. But I don’t think anyone is watching it, especially the people/teenagers/whoever who are struggling with suicide.

I watched it… and I don’t know, I still think it doesn’t fix the whole shock factor they seemed to be going for. And I do think their intentions were so good here. Why? Because Selena Gomez was on the production team. I love her for being so open and honest with her own struggle with mental health… and for that reason, am very surprised that she signed off on such a triggering portrayal of a person’s story.

Yes, I think this show can accomplish good things and motivate people. But I also think it can hurt people.

So, let me say it again: I think the stir this show has caused will actually cause more suicides if we do not steward this conversation well on a national level, so I am going to focus my attention on that part. This is not just because the show is a trigger; it is because of some of the vocal reactions to the show. Some of you have suggested the things Hannah Baker experienced in the show are “not worth killing yourself over.” Hear me very clearly here: it is not your job to make that call. To someone in Hannah’s shoes, it felt like a real solution to real distress. That is so hard to wrap your mind around if you haven’t struggled there.

Another thing that’s going to make all of our hearts expand here is that we cannot ostracize people who haven’t dealt with this from the discussion, as if this is a secret society. We have got to explain our experiences to the “other side” It is one thing to yell instructions at someone who is in the bottom of a dark hole. It is another to jump down and teach them how to build a ladder because you’ve had to before, and you know how from experience. Both are extremely valuable. One is perhaps more helpful in times of acute distress. However, there are ladders you can build that I can’t. And vice versa. It’s why we all need to be in on the same conversation — it’s a huge team effort.

I, and others who have experienced suicidal thoughts, think the depiction of the protagonist’s journey is very accurate; I have heard some say it seems “overdramatic” — but lots of individual experiences are like this, if not worse. I never counted the number of stories like this I heard in my two years as a high school counselor, but I wish I had. In that way, it can be very helpful when trying to help those who do not have first-hand experience here garner understanding for those who struggle with suicide, but with a high cost in other ways. It’s a both/and. And we have to follow both of those trails.

Another comment I have heard in the wake of this show’s release is that “people need to figure this stuff out for themselves,” but guess what? “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was not a therapeutic model they taught me in either one of the nationally accredited Counseling Master’s degree programs I have been a member of. No, vulnerable populations, such as those who are suicidal, do not need baseline encouragement; they need real tools, and anchors. This show is not an anchor. This show does have the potential to tie an anchor to a suicidal person and drag them to the bottom of the ocean, where they will actually drown if they do not have the supports they need to resurface.

Here’s the thing: Netflix did not listen to the panel of psychologists who told them to not include certain things, so they are not going to listen to me. It’s out there. It’s been released into the wild. It just is.

But here’s the good news. This is one of my favorite side hustles because suicide is 100 percent preventable. This is a mountain I am willing to die on. Mine was prevented because a girl named Kaitlin sat on my bed during my sophomore year of college, and when I told her what was going on in my head, and why and how I wanted it to be over, she escorted me over to Health Services real quick and then my butt was on a medical leave of absence from Wofford — so I could recover. Hear me say this, loud and freaking clear: I am still alive today because someone gave me the permission, which was lacking from society-at-large, to go get help. This has everything to do with the presence of mental health stigma.

We have so much work to do here, but there is actually a way to do it. It is not just talking about it. It is talking about it a certain way.

You have to get all of these things in the discussion:

A) the rock bottom part of the story

B) a resilience-building story from rock bottom, even if it does not “end” in “recovery”

C) available resources, whether global or specific to a community

My problem with “13 Reasons Why” is that it literally only does Part A. It starts the conversation, gives you all of this dark – but real! – but still dark stuff, and then Season One is over. But here we are. It is on Netflix, and I can guarantee you that there is not a dang thing that we can do about that. So, because of this reality, we have to finish the rest of the arc I talked about.

And honestly, I am scared that this is just a fad.

This is a sexy Hollywood show with lots of pretty people in it. Is it still going to even be on our radar in six months? What are we going to tell all of the people whose struggles have been brought to the surface when this stuff is gone from our social media feeds, but they are still hurting? What are we going to do for those people? To protect and support them? Are we going to take their hands and find them supports, or are we going to get upset and make a statement, and then move on with our lives? We have a very huge opportunity right in front of us, y’all.

I’m gonna do the first one, and you should jump on that bandwagon with me real hard. You can suggest ideas, and take actions – both are important, and the second one is faster.

1. Find your local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter. Find your chapter here.

2. Explore the idea of therapy. I now, as of a week ago, work for a counseling practice that specializes in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of you have asked when I can take on clients. I talked to my mentor, and she says the answer is now. You have to physically be in South Carolina for me to be your therapist. If you are not, I will find you another one of me. Or the internet can. It could take some work to find one who is a good fit for what you need, but this is step one. Find one close to you here.

3. If this has you wanting to share your story, please make sure you are ready to do that, and take care of yourself when you do. I didn’t share mine until I’d been through therapy and was in a safe place to yield questions from people, and possible adverse reactions from people who didn’t quite understand my experience. I have lots more to say on that. There is so much power in sharing, but you have to make sure you are doing it in a way that is safe and healthy for you.

Basically, find out what the people around you need. There are ways you can do this pouring out of our ears, and people do not have to have a mental illness to be struggling — it is our job to actually change the thing about the world that makes us feel like we cannot talk about things openly. Life is not Instagram. You do not actually have to put a pretty bow on all of the things — we actually need each other to be real. After all, “We are all just walking each other home.” — Ram Das

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via megamix

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