"Thirteen Reasons Why" and Suicide

Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, a YA novel that apparently is a huge hit around the world, is something to behold. Not just as a first novel, but as a prolific, captivating story.

***Fair warning: there may be spoilers below***

First, it touches on a subject few really want to discuss beyond the usual pep-rallies that hype up the “awareness” of suicide. In almost every culture around the world, depression (and all mental illness) is seen as a “get over it” disease. “If only you’d smile more, you wouldn’t be so depressed.” “If you stopped wearing black, maybe you’d have friends.” “Stop looking for attention and get over yourself.” “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

These are all comments I heard directed at me (and others).

Second, Hannah (one of the main characters…the one who commits suicide) makes it a point to acknowledge several things. For one, the councilor did nothing to stop her though he of all people should have known the signs. The reason for Mr. Porter’s misstep remains unclear, but given my professional background, I can say that many professionals in the field of mental illness and teens (or adults) hear different versions of “I’m gonna kill myself” so often, even they begin to go blind. It’s a field that one can rarely remain successful at for very long. It’s too draining.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Porter wasn’t really a professional, he still acted like every other school faculty member I’ve ever engaged. When I went to several different school faculty members about bullying I was told everything.

“Get over it.”
“Boys will be boys.”
“Everyone’s going to die. ‘You’re going to die’ isn’t a threat.”
“You can’t possibly believe they did that on purpose.”
“If you stopped dressing like you do, maybe you wouldn’t draw so much attention.”

These are all comments teachers and principals said to me when I approached them. And, yes, I received phone call death threats. I brought the answering machine tape in as proof. The administrator looked me square in the face and said, “Everyone’s going to die….this isn’t a threat.”

There remains an overarching culture of “teenagers are just melodramatic” and “teasing is a natural part of life”. That’s a main reason why so many, like Hannah, commit suicide. Which leads me to something else Hannah mentioned that I’ve never heard spoken by anyone except my own troubled thoughts when I was a teen.

These “isolated” incidents can get to a point where nothing in your life is sacred, nothing is safe, and psychologically, it hollows you out. You’re not safe at home or in your room. You’re not safe in school, at recess, at the bus stop, on the street, in the store, in the car, or anywhere. Crowds become something you avoid, as are places of isolation, places where you can be surprised, where there’s no bright lights. You stop using the bathroom since nobody can see you in there. You stop going into public because people can see you.

A friend of mine and I were chased on foot by three jocks in their car one night. Three blocks they followed us and screamed what they planned to do to us. We ran into a VFW where they were holding a fundraiser. We begged to let us use their phone. They said they didn’t want that kind of trouble there and kicked us out…where the three other students continued to follow us. Finally at home, we called the police. They took statements but nothing happened. Why? One of the other guy’s parents was a police officer.

Lastly, Hannah was seeking attention. But not in the way most mean when they utter those words. She sought help. You can’t just walk up to somebody and say “I want to kill myself.” And if you did, they’d simply say, “If that were true, then you’d have done it already…you’re just looking for attention.” The next morning, when questions were asked, they would say, “Yes, but I didn’t believe she’d actually do it.” Then pep-rallies would ensue and the cycle would continue…without that person.

You’re right! They are looking for attention. They came to you for help. They still don’t really want to kill themselves. There’s still a shred of humanity inside them they’re clinging to and they are looking to you for the reason to continue holding on. But since they have not yet found a safe haven, death seems the only relief.

Too many nights, as a teen, I spent trying to figure out how I’d do it. Friends, parents, teachers, peers, principals. I went to them all. The dark clothes and the anger didn’t come until after I had given up. As  someone I knew once said, “The only problem was, I was too depressed to lift the knife to my wrist.”

I can’t thank Jay Asher for bringing those horrible memories of my own past to light, but I can say Thank You for producing a book, and apparently a moment that will, I hope, change many. It would be my guess, however, that most schools will ban this book the next time a teen within their walls french kisses the barrel of a gun. Having read many of the negative comments about this book, I find it hard to believe Asher is winning this uphill battle.

Addendum: Jay Asher and I don’t know each other, have never spoken, and nobody and no organization or company paid me for this post.

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