Tuesday, 13 June 2017
This is written from the perspective of a former teenager, a mental health professional who has worked with many people experiencing suicidal ideation or whom have attempted suicide, a former high school counsellor, a psychotherapist that saw a fair amount of teenagers in her private practice, a person who has been at the aftermath of one too many suicides and a mother with a blended family of nine.
We can talk until we are blue in the face about the reality of working with this clientele– practicing boundaries to keep myself sane working with such complex people feeling absolutely despondent. Tortured.
But, it's helping during the aftermath that was always the hardest.
It was the aftermath that has made me go into my own teenager's room late at night after returning from a scene and beg them to swear to me they will never, ever, resort to taking their own life.
And the aftermath that has made me already have that talk with my almost 13 year old.
Granted I've been a bit "checked out" from popular culture over the past six months, but I first began hearing about the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" relatively recently and always from a negative context.
We shouldn't be exposing our kids to the topic of suicide.
Aren't we just giving them ideas?
How can they show graphic scenes of a suicide?
The show doesn't even mention depression in the context of the suicide.
So I decided to watch it.
With my professional background and being a parent, I thought maybe I could have an informed critique.
And I was extremely impressed with the handling of the topic and the overall production.
The following are some thoughts on the matter intermingled with a few things to consider if you are contemplating your child watching the show.
Let's start with the big stuff: The graphic portrayal of suicide.
First take a moment and ponder how much violence on television or movies or video games or language that you think your kids have been exposed to during their lifetime. Unless you are homeschooling sans TV or electronics and living out in the wilderness, I strongly doubt that your children have not been exposed to gratuitious violence.
The suicide scene is on the last episode. It starts when the counter is at 23:15 and by 20:00 when I remembered to look back at the time the entire scene, including her being found, was well and truly over.
Skip it if you want to avoid that scene. It's a split second within the entire series and you don't have to see it. If you are in the camp of hear no, see no, speak no, this may sound kind of disgusting, but it was handled as respectfully as it could have possibly been and if we expose ourselves and others to watching others' deaths for entertainment? This is not the issue on which people need to be focusing their disagreement with the show.
From what I'd read I expected that there were flashbacks to the scene all throughout the episodes.
There were not.
In fact, the cause of death was not discussed much. It was reflected in a hallucinatory scene with Clay at a school dance, with Hannah appearing on the gym floor bleeding from her wrists (the only other suggestively graphic scene and nothing kids haven't seen if they've watched horror flicks or any violence-- less bloody than Carrie). And at some point someone mentions Hannah slitting her wrists.
The gym scene carries great weight because by then you really care about and "get" Hannah, so yes, it touches your heart. Which is what we want from ourselves and teens. Empathy. A NO, how could she do that, she had so much to live for reaction.
So no, I did not feel that the mode of suicide was handled gratuitously. It could have been so much more graphic. They were thoughtful.
What I do realise within that conversation is that it is the fear of the aftermath that keeps people so afraid of watching or having their teens watch that scene.
The thought that we might be a party to our teen picking up on any ideas and that we could possibly ever walk into a scene such as that is overwhelming and it's just easier to keep that topic on the back shelf.
However, this leads to my second point.
I'm strongly inclined to believe that this piece is maybe even more important for adults to watch than teens. Parents, school staff, counsellors, psychologists, coaches and the like.
In fact, if I ran a high school (rue the day) I'd want to conduct a mandatory group watching and processing of each episode.
The processing would be as much about sexual discrimination and assault as the headline topic of this series. These issues are rampant and the socialising of that behaviour starts in these communities.
It needs to stop.
Although prevention of suicide is an important topic, the comments I read saying that it was absolutely wrong for "13 reasons" to say the suicide had anything to do with others' actions, it was depression, were possibly covering for their discomfort at thinking it could be possible to drive another to suicide.
When a young child or teen kills themselves my first question is "what were they trying to escape from?"
Rarely does their suicidal despondency arrive in a vacuum. There's frequently a last straw. And in those age groups you start looking at where in their lives they were feeling trapped or marginalised or helpless.
And sometimes it's like the perfect student who was cheerful at home and school and had no recent issues or stressors and one day received a below satisfactory mark on a test and fearing her father's disappointment left school early, drove down her long driveway and shot herself before her parents arrived home.
It happens. Out of nowhere sometimes. That's why parenting or looking after children is a daunting task not for the feint of heart.
13 reasons displays layer by layer the complexities of the high school relationships and hierarchy. It shows us how little, we as parents or school staff, really know about what is going on between these kids and each other inside and outside the school's walls.
I had the privilege of hearing stories, in confidence, behind closed doors when I worked in the U.S. from many teens.
Nothing I saw on "13 Reasons Why" shocked me.
It should have.
It's disgusting that it didn't.
Even almost fifteen years ago the stories coming from small rural farming communities in mid-America about sex parties, alcohol, drugs, and the like, were mind-blowing.
And my kids wondered why I was "strict." I was hearing from the front lines and there was no way I could keep my head in the sand.
In my biological kids' own prosperous suburban school district the number of suicides was staggering.
So friends, we can negate a show that illustrates what our teens are really being exposed to or just ignore it all, keeping your head deeply immersed in the sand.
Either way suicides and rapes and harassment are still going to occur, but I'd argue that the only way they may lessen is if we all stop playing ostrich and pretending that, no, this doesn't happen in our world and start looking around and having the difficult conversations.
Within our families.
Within our communities.
Within our schools.
Depression? Here's a newsflash.
Depression in teens doesn't look like it does in other populations.
No, this show didn't talk about depression too much, but it sure as hell illustrated it. To the point that (without giving too much away) I was able to correctly project some future behaviours based on the great acting and foresight the writers and directors had as they went episode to episode.
For the record, teen depression frequently gets missed because a teen may show behavioural changes and signs at home such as increased irritability, less interest in things, more isolating (although isolating at this age is frequently developmentally appropriate as the teen explores there independence). They may even be able to say, "I'm so depressed." Or "I'm not sleeping and feel horrible."
But herein lies the rub– frequently the depressed teen can go out and socialise and want to hang with their friends and appear "ok" and automatically the adults feel all is well.
Parents may even lay it on harder because how dare you try to get out of responsibility saying your depressed or stressed but you are well and good when you hang out with your friends.
Insert huge conflict right here, which does nothing for anyone's mood.
Forget the deep and important subjects of drugs and alcohol but in the above scenario, the peers are the teens drug of choice. And they do feel better out in that scene.
That doesn't have to negate there can also be a deep depressive process going on which will make them even more susceptible to the cruelty of the teenage terrain.
Even writing this opens up a Pandora's box that I do not have the room to sort through here: issues of alcohol and substance abuse; internet use and abuse; cyberbullying; sexual responsibility; consent; sexual assault; group norms; and the list goes on.
Back to topic, I appreciated how this show represented diversity within the school community.
Clearly they were trying to keep it pretty and palatable for their teen audience, but sexual orientation, differing lifestyles and a multi-cultural population were handled in a way that, I believe, could go some distance in dispelling negative stereotypes.
When watching it, I recommend viewing it as a family if your teen wants to watch it at all.
Watch the "13 reasons why: beyond the reasons" together before you watch the series. It came up after I completed the series. It's a good icebreaker with few spoilers and helps set the tone.
Language is horrid on this show. Language is horrid in high school. Talk about it.
Stop and discuss when any viewer has discomfort and when there are times you want to check in: do you see this at your school? Has this ever happened to anyone you know? (you may hear spontaneous comments like-- oh that kid is just like ____)
Strive to be the sanctuary for your kids. Strive to have the door open just wide enough that even your surly teen knows that if the worst was happening: you have their back.
Sit at your kid's bedside and ask them to promise that they would never, ever, ever take their own life and to come to you if they ever feel that horrible.
And understand in your own heart and mind that there are no absolute guarantees in this life. I've seen the most amazing parents have to walk this horrid walk. We just have to do what we can and then try to let go of the fear.
"It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow."
–– Clay, 13 Reasons Why
** I'd say PG-13 with a huge emphasis on the PG. My 13 year old has no interest in watching it but we talked about it and he was in the room at times when I watched it. Per usual I would not be comfortable with more sexual scenes and language but we talk about these things ahead of time. Optimal viewers (besides adults)? Teens in high school. There is nothing in the movie they are not exposed to in one way or another. The important thing in my opinion is the conversation opportunities this breaks open for you. They've probably already watched it if they have the means. Your turn. And discuss.
13 Reasons Why joins Dear Evan Hansen in responsible productions that I'm thrilled exist to get teens and parents talking, but that's another conversation.