Friday, April 28, 2017

13 Reasons Why Follow Up: Depression, Suicide, and Prevention

13 Reasons Why Follow Up 

Why I am comfortable talking about suicide? In the previous post, I wrote about my friend Karen. Though I won’t go into detail, my own mother had a 15-year depression that ended in suicide. I have lost students and former students. I am not afraid of this topic. I want to challenge it head on.

 Attitudes and Viewpoints 

“People argue whether the glass is half full or half empty. The point is that the glass is refillable!”

When I read so many complaints about the show, it seems to me that the criticisms are claiming the glass is half full. Critics are correct, but miss the point that there is some excellent content (the water) and is refillable (filled with teachable moments and deep-conversation starters). I must confess that since watching the show and posting the original blog, people keep sharing with me additional articles and points of view. I really appreciate this. It means people are thinking and considering. I love the debate about the show because it is forcing us to deal directly with the issue of teenage depression and suicide without it being a response to an actual suicide in one of our schools/communities.

Image drawn by one of my students who suffers from
depression. These are both how she feels and names
she has been called in high school.

Cautions with 13 Reasons Why

  • The show does not deal with depression and suicide accurately and context is needed 
  • The show could have dealt with those issues differently-and perhaps should have 
  • It deals with adult subject matter that teens often have to deal with
  • Since the show did not, that leaves it up to us 
  • No, we did not produce or direct or edit the show. 
  • I acknowledge that they hired experts and one of the experts did not want the show to be released. Yes, the show is not for everyone--believe me when I say I do understand that 

Yes, 13 Reasons Why gets depression wrong. But it gets so much right. Too many of the criticisms are missing this fundamental point. It's a fictional story but it hits home for our students. One theme that I see in the criticism is that of fear--people are afraid kids are going to use the show as an impetus to die by suicide. Let’s say for a moment that is true. If so, why would we not take the time to educate our kids and adults about depression and suicide so they would not be so easily manipulated? If someone has felt real depression, the thought of suicide, killing oneself, or somehow disappearing will have entered their heads. That much we know. Let’s use this show as a way to talk about what it got wrong and what it got right and what we, as the adults, can do to help our kids in need or in crisis.

Why So Much Discomfort With This Show? 

 Do we spend this much time criticizing romance novels or their popular movie counterparts for getting relationships wrong? How much outrage do we have when popular shows get education wrong? Or when it gets the lives of--fill in the blank--wrong? What if we are focusing on the wrong thing? We are getting angry at the show/producers and ignoring why is it so popular? We are angry about the popularity of a show that depicts suicide in a way that is atypical but ignore why it resonates with so many kids? How much of our discomfort with 13 Reasons Why is projection of our own inability to deal honestly and openly about suicide and depression in general? How much should the condemnation should be redirected back at us for not dealing with bullying and rape culture honestly and directly enough? I mean this sincerely and without blame. We are merely going with the social flow. Teen brains are not yet completely formed and they do stupid things. Teens may not be able to articulate what is wrong but they know when a movie or television series or a book understands them.

Our society has a long history of condemnation and disquiet regarding suicide. Despite various historical events wherein suicide is brought out such as during the Vietnam War when Buddhist monks were self-immolating or someone semi-famous like comedian/host Ray Combs who dies by suicide, it comes into our peripheral awareness. When Curt Cobain (lost on our students) or Robin Williams suicides, our attention is focused and we are hurt and outraged for a time, then we are distracted and move on, reminded only when we see his picture in a meme about suicide.

For many of us, depression and suicide is not a reality we are dealing with. It is relatively easy to pay attention to something else.

13 Reasons Why makes us focus on the issues because our many of our kids not only are watching the show, they are loving the show. It depicts a reality we do not know or comprehend. We need to understand that.

 What the Show Got Right 

Many reviews and commentaries ignore or minimize what the show got right. Smartphones (phones that are little computers and cameras connected to the world-wide web) were not become popular until 2011. That was only 6 years ago. To put it bluntly, no one over the age of 25 has never experienced what it is like to go to high school with the social pressures that are possible with smartphones and social media apps.

  • We do not have any idea what it is like to live it
  • The show gets a lot right about teen life and that truth gets lost in the outrage shown about how the show represents suicidal ideation and its overall understanding of suicide 
  • It shows our helplessness and lack of imagination on how to solve the issues. 
  • They feel out of our control 
  • It shows the entitlement some/many males feel in relation to their connections to females 
  • The process of and possible impact of sexual assault and rape amongst teens 
  • The way peer pressure and conformity works in the real world 
  • The way kids deal with confusion differently
  • The way different kids process emotions and problems “I liked it because I could really related to it. We have people like the characters in our lives, maybe not to that extreme, but we have those people in our lives.”~Alexandra G.
  • The impotence of trying to change messed up and dysfunctional families whether it is 
    •  Alex and his inability to disagree with his dad, 
    •  Justin and the struggle with addiction, 
    •  Bryce and kids like him who are able to use money/status to get away crimes and unethical behavior 
  • The ineptitude of some adults in dealing with bullying or sexual assault.
  • It shows the social dynamics of high school more accurately than High School Musical. 
  • For those of who are old enough, you may recall a show called, “My So-Called Life” that spoke to that generation. 13 Reasons Why speaks to the current generation. 

Why This Show Is Important 

Is this a show for adults? Yes Will teens too young to watch view it? Yes Does it depict depression and suicide in a textbook way? No It is becoming/has become a cultural phenomenon and I might know why. I assert what is really bothering us is that it depicts something none/few of the adults have had experienced. Cyber bullying is something none of us have experienced while being a teenager--it is literally new. My student Alexandra said, “my mother did not understand what I was going through in middle school and why I did not want to return to school with the bullying I was getting. She thought school was still just like what we went through.” We cannot get it completely.

We need to learn to listen and to skill-build with our kids. We need to help them learn how to cope, adjust, work on, improve their skills that will enable them to positively handle their stressors. Perhaps teens understand that it is emotionally rings truer because it does not shy away from or gloss over the uncomfortable realities of being a teenager in 2017.

Is the adult reaction to this show a generational cry for help that something is wrong and we need to respond differently than how we have been? Few are comfortable with the issue with rape despite the show doing an excellent job of depicting two variations of the occurrence.

Rape is a challenging enough topic as it is, but how many teachers are comfortable discussing the issue in a room full of teenagers with a variety of viewpoints. Psychology teachers have the best opportunity to deal with this if that take up the challenge. Seek out experts to come to class. Listen to student questions. Keep a list--bring back important ones for future semesters. It is the least we can do. We must listen to our kids. They love this show because it is a close approximation of what their lives can be like. That should be our main concern. They are crying out for help--will we listen?

This is a golden opportunity to listen to and understand this generation of kids. They like the show not because of how it portrays suicide or depression, but the other issues of the show. This is what kids are living with as teenagers. A complex world that's infinitely unfair. A world that values the wrong things.

The show portrayed the counselor as one who did not know how to help. He could not extend a helping hand. This show presents a world in which teens reach out for help only to find they are grasping at air and a "you've gotta move on " attitude without the skills to emotionally process the events they experience.

Will we be the adults who unwittingly mimic Mr. Porter rather than someone who cares when one of our students is in pain? Who will we be? Our kids are crying out. Will we listen? Will we reach back? Will our efforts help? Will we take off our own blinders and realize that middle and high school has changed and become even more intense than even ten years ago? How will we react once we truly understand this?

 What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say. -Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Each person has their own set of schemas about how the world is supposed to be. What have we filtered out in the discussion of this show. Yes, revenge fantasies for teens are not helpful. But why are they so satisfying? They help give a sense of justice in a world turned upside down in which we don't see each other's private pain but only the facades we present to the world.

We need to teach kids how to see through the portrayals and see the truth while also showing that bad things happen to good people and that life is not always just.

Clay is that kid who is trying to figure things out and trying to seek justice and get people to see the truth. He is impatient and sometimes too quick to judge without knowing all the facts. He is intense and with misdirected guilt and frustration and anger at how life is so unfair. It feels like no one understands him and his friends and he is confused about others as well. At least he is trying to find out what really happened. He was putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Given the right tools, he would make an amazing ally to friends in need.

 Actions to Take 

  • Decide what kinds of adults we are going to be--judgmental or helpful 
  • Listen to our kids 
  • Ask them their perceptions about things
  • Learn more about our kids today 
  • Learn more about depression and suicide 
  • Listen to the cries for help 
  • Get ourselves into the right headspace 
  • Learn what options and choices kids have regarding bullying, rape, sexual assault, depression, etc. 
  • Start dealing with challenging issues directly rather than tangentially or not at all. 
  • Give kids real options for action and not just slogans and posters 
  • Make social and emotional skills a higher priority in schools 
  • Make mental health a priority in schools and communities

posted by Chuck Schallhorn

1 comment:

Ms. Debbie Dashoff said...

Thank you for this post. I found the show depressing because as a teacher and a parent, I knew I would have missed the signs that Hannah was in trouble. I appreciate you reminding us how new cell phones are to the culture and how this can effect teenagers so strongly.