Friday, April 21, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Being a Teen, Bullying, Rape, and Suicide

Hi, I am Chuck Schallhorn, alive and well, and with whatever device you are reading this on, please understand that this is my story, not yours.

13 Reasons Why

I've been teaching since 1987. In those 30 years, I have had students recommend many things: Dave Matthews (one student made me a tape). The Matrix (should have listened about that recommendation), and Spongebob (still cannot watch that one). Like a small child who shares something trivial with us and gives it as a well-intentioned gift, we cannot just give this lip-service and then ignore it. If we do, we ignore the chance to gain some real insights about what our students are experiencing right now.

More than 15 students asked me if I had seen the series, 13 Reasons Why. I had never had that level of response from anything outside of class before. I told them I would watch it and come back with my views. I intend to listen more than talk when I get to see them Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday.

With this post, I am talking to the adults. Spoiler alert if you have not watched the series. To be honest, I read some spoilers and it did not take away from my viewing of the series. I will say that I watched the show over my spring break and could watch no more than two episodes consecutively. To borrow from the show, you have to "be in the right 'headspace'" in order to watch the show. For me, it hit close to home. Perhaps that is why I view the series as important.

If you watch this to "be entertained" you will be disappointed. It is an intense series that takes place through the eyes of Clay Jensen, a sophomore at the beginning of the story. We see everything through his eyes, through his interpretation of what he is listening to on a series of cassette tapes left behind by a friend/crush (Hannah Baker) of his who suicided.

During the series, he attempts to figure out what she says about the people who hurt her and how he can make it right in some way. The story plays out as a mystery of sorts--who did what? Who is each tape about? In my words, Clay is attempting an amateur psychological autopsy while being wracked with nightmares, fear, anger, guilt, jealousy, and more during the time he listens to the tapes. All the while we move through time while excerpts from the tapes take us back to various points in Hannah's life.

The series began as a popular book that was adapted into a teleplay that became a 13-episode television show in Netflix--the online video-on-demand service. Did we have that growing up? Could we stream shows right to our phones? Did we even have the internet? I did not.

Why is 13 Reasons Why important to kids? It speaks to their current experiences. It depicts the confusion, the intensity, the challenges of navigating today's digital social media driven world in a way that we never had to.

So many critics of this show lamenting that the show "didn't get suicide and depression right." You can read those criticisms at the links below along with many I am sure to have missed. 

The Articles

Here is a sampling of the articles critiquing the show:

This Is Why People Are Saying '13 Reasons Why' Is A Dangerous Show via @JennaGuillaume

Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is an irresponsible dramatisation of teenage suicide

5 Conversations to Have with Your Teens After "13 Reasons Why" | Common Sense Media via @commonsense

This Is What's Missing From '13 Reasons Why' via @TeenVogue

Why I Wish I Didn't Watch '13 Reasons Why'

'13 Reasons Why' Gets Depression & Suicidal Thoughts All Wrong

Why Hannah's Suicide Scene Was So Graphic On 13 Reasons Why via @refinery29

The '13 Reasons Why' Meme That Left Me in Tears via @TheMightySite

How to Support Someone With Depression via @TeenVogue

Mental Health Organization Says 13 Reasons Why Is Dangerous For Those At Risk For Suicide

Positive Views/Sources for Help

13 Reasons Why Talking Points

Hannah Baker from '13 Reasons Why' Could Have Been Me

9 million people consider suicide each year. Here are six ways to support someone in your life.

Everyone Is Talking About How '13 Reasons Why' Perfectly Tackles Rape and Suicide via @attn

"13 Reasons Why: Tips for Viewing & Discussing New Netflix Series" via @jedfoundation

Mental health org and 'Stranger Things' star send warnings about '13 Reasons Why' via @mashable

Why are we so pissed? It got suicide wrong in that suicide is not typically a "revenge fantasy" as one writer called it. The tapes are a device to move the story. If we discounted stories for using these devices, we would have none left. Nearly every story uses a trope or some plot device to move the story along. This one uses the tapes.

Yes, it gets depression wrong, but how many other movies and television shows get it right? Do we criticize them? Do we become righteously indignant when other do not? Or is it that it gets depression and suicide wrong and teens still like it? I do not have all the answers, only my viewpoint, my perspective. Perhaps it is my selective perception, but I do not recall this much outrage when other shows/movies get it wrong. Perhaps my recall is incomplete or mistaken. In any case, while I did not "love" the series, I related to much of it and was moved and impacted by it. 

Perhaps the show scares us because it deals with topics that scare the crap out of most adults. Many of us, like the counselor, Mr. Porter, despite training, are still afraid to deal head-on with sensitive topics and experiences. Perhaps we are more comfortable reading about them rather than listening to someone express their own pain. Perhaps the show scares us because it reminds us of how easy it is to miss the signs of someone in distress. Perhaps it is because we have our own issues and challenges and we do not feel as though we can take on someone else's. Perhaps we want to ignore a wake-up call.

Karen: My Personal Connection to Suicide

Perhaps the reason the show resonated with me is that I was Clay 30+ years ago during my freshman year in college. I had a friend, Karen, who was in my freshman seminar class called "Artists in Fact and Fiction." I got to know Karen a bit. Enough so she put my contact information in her address book. My story with Karen occurred when we attended a Sunday evening art show opening on campus. After the show, I walked her back to her dorm. We talked outside for about an hour (no boys after 8 pm).

She told me of how she had gone home that weekend to see her family. She found out her parents were split and her father was living in a messy apartment (devastating to her as she was a "daddy's girl" who put her father on a pedestal. She had come from an idyllic suburban existence where she was a straight-A student, the "counselor" to her friends, and a model. She graduated high school in 1982 and went to Valparaiso University to earn her degree. She discovered quickly that her emotions were not the same as when she was at home. In retrospect, I realize that she was suffering from depression at a time when drug therapies were not common. She sought out at least two counselors on campus. Neither seemed to help. Her grades were lower than her expectations. She was having trouble accepting the idea that she had to go to others for help when she used to be the "rock" for others. She hated asking for help. After listening to her, and not knowing much if anything about psychology or depression at the time, I asked her, "You're not thinking of killing yourself are you?"

Quickly, I stammered that she should ignore my stupid question. I was out of line and never should have asked it. Our conversation ended shortly after that.

On Tuesday, Karen was not in class. That night, while I was at work, I received a call from her resident advisor asking me if I had seen her. I had not. For ten days she was missing. We put out flyers in our small college town. We had some limited media coverage (not like we can see today). We came together as campus groups and searched fields and woods near campus. The police detectives interviewed those of us who knew her and were in her address book. She concluded that Karen was having trouble with the stresses of school and was off partying somewhere. We knew better. We knew something was wrong but lacked the ability to know what it was.

Ten days after she disappeared, a police officer in a helicopter saw some bright colored fabric in a field next to a church parking lot. When officers on the ground investigated, they found Karen's decomposing body. Weeks later, after the funeral, which I was unable to attend, the administration got the autopsy and police reports. The Dean of Women was kind enough to tell me personally and give me a copy of a letter to her friends. Karen had taken over 150 over-the-counter medications the morning of that Tuesday. After somehow ingesting all of those pills, she began walking. At some point, the chemicals got to her and she passed out in that field and overdosed. She died alone.

That incident was an impetus to my becoming a teacher of psychology. Those series of events marked a turning point in my life where I could not sit by and watch kids in pain without trying to help in some way. Suicide prevention became an underlying aspect of who I was/am, not just something I went through once.


Please understand that it is harder being a teenager today than before the advent of cell phones and social media and digital cameras. We had it hard. Today's kids have it more difficult than we did. It is just as easy to make one mistake, but we could hide it since it could go only as far as the people we hurt--and how much they verbally shared it

As adults, we need to judge less and be more open to the idea that our kids have experiences that may seem trivial to us. We need to listen more. We need to understand that what we went through is not what kids today are going through. They need help navigating. It is our responsibility to help them when we can.

Watch the show if you are able. If not, be able to tell your kids why you are not able. Share with them your experiences with people you've known who have been depressed, considered or completed suicide. I know the challenges of personal sharing. Keep it professional. Admit that it might hit too close to home and that you do not want to view that kind of show. Just be honest with them. If they choose to open up and share, know how to refer your kids to the professionals who can help them most effectively. If you do not know how to do this, please contact your local campus counselors, your administration, or local city/county mental health agencies for guidance.

I am not a certified mental health expert. My views come from thirty years teaching, 29 years teaching psychology,  professional training sessions in suicide prevention, graduate coursework in teenage depression and suicide, and a graduate degree in education with an emphasis in school counseling. 


Nancy Diehl said...

Thanks for sharing links, information, and your background in a warm, sensitive and respectful way. I am sure I am not alone in appreciating this post.

Audrey said...

Thank you for sharing! While thankfully I was not in that kind of dire need of a great listener when I was in high school, it was very obvious to me that you were available as one. Such a crucial skill and character trait to have as a teacher and a parent!

sschullo said...

Thank you for sharing such an emotional experience with us and your insight on a topic that is hard for people to discuss.

L.Gabriel said...

Thank you for speaking up about this. I, too, have been asked by students about this series and watched it myself. I felt very much the same way as you. However, I am curious as to how it got depression wrong? This is not an attempt to argue but instead educate myself a little more about depression. I thought it did a decent job given that so many people experience depression differently so this is why I am asking.

Thank you,