There has been a lot of criticism of the Netflix Original “13 Reasons Why” television series, some stating that the show glamorizes and sensationalizes suicide, while others feel that it is too graphic.
(Spoiler alert: I make reference to one of the critical scenes, so stop reading now and bookmark this to come back to immediately after you binge-watch the entire first season.)
With Season Two set to debut on May 18th, I thought I would take a moment to have a raw and real conversation about suicide.
My opinion is likely not going to be popular with the masses, and may go against many people’s beliefs. However, this is MY opinion and MY internal thought process. You don’t have to agree with me, but please do not disrespect mine (or anyone else’s) thoughts and opinions on suicide.
In February of 2014 I suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a fall on the ice. My life was turned upside down in an instant, and I was thrust into a world of chronic pain, isolation, depression, fear, and anxiety. I contemplated suicide as a way to end the relentless pain on more than one occasion.
An article from the Journal of Head Trauma and Rehabilitation states: “First, suicide ideation following traumatic brain injury is highly prevalent and affects nearly 30% of patients. Second, despite extensive efforts, research in suicidology has not yet succeeded in producing an accurate, short-term predictive model of suicidal behavior at the individual level. However, a survey of 84,850 adults of 17 countries showed that across all countries, 60% of transitions from ideation to plan and attempt occur within the first year after ideation onset.” (J Head Trauma Rehabil. Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 290-300.)
The first point I want to make is that ideation doesn’t equal weakness. Just because you think about suicide doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you, or that you are mentally unstable. There is way too much stigma around suicide being a mental health problem … and while I agree that this is one component to it, there are a lot of other factors to consider.
Like in my case — chronic pain — is one of the most debilitating things to live with. Especially when doctors aren’t giving you any clear answers or solutions. I had one doctor tell me that my symptoms were possibly psychosomatic (basically meaning I was either imagining them, or making them up).
Additionally, suicide is not a selfish act. I hate how this phrase is loosely thrown around whenever we talk about suicide. The person who acted on his or her thoughts was in the deepest, darkest place known to mankind. He or she truly knew no other way out. In his mind, he likely thought he was doing the rest of us a favor by no longer being a burden — when you look at it that way, one could argue it is actually quite self-less.
A few years ago I lost a friend to suicide. He was someone I had been intimate with several years earlier. When I heard what happened, my first thought was not what many would consider typical. I thought, “Good for him.” Of course, if I said this out loud to anyone, they would have thought I was being insensitive. How could I be so cold and callous about someone with whom I had once shared my bed?
In actuality, I was happy for him. Newly married, he had been through a tragic loss of his young wife, and didn’t know how to continue on without her. I knew he was now at peace — yet all everyone else was saying were things like, “It’s such a selfish act, what a coward.” My heart went out to his family, and I know it’s never easy to understand. It’s something they may never get over, but I hope that they can one day see it from his perspective, and rest a little easier knowing he did it for himself.
And while we’re at it, let’s quit calling it a cowardly act. As I stood at the top of the landing in my loft, I looked down at the cement floor 20 feet below and wondered if the fall would kill me, or just leave me wounded and in more pain than I already was in. I actually laughed out loud, thinking what a wimp I was — and that’s likely what saved my life. Those who go through with the act are not cowards. Whether it’s jumping off a bridge, putting a gun to your temple, or however it is executed, is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of courage to go through with the act, yet I know that does little to comfort the family.
Suicide is not glamorous or sensational. Those who are in an uproar over the show’s message are the ones whose children I worry about the most. The show is a glimpse into the world of bullying, sexual assault, untamed emotions of hormonal teenage years, and adults who looked the other way instead of reaching out to help. We need to be having an open-and-honest conversation about suicide. By banning our teens from watching the show, we are teaching them that it’s shameful to have suicidal thoughts — or even just emotional instability, in general.
In the bathtub scene where we see Hannah slice deep into both of her wrists with a razor blade, I initially let out a gasp and had to cover my eyes because it was so real and raw. I replayed it several times because I knew it was an important scene for me process. Watching it, I can feel all the emotions that she’s feeling, and in that moment I completely understand why she is choosing to end her life.
Through my eyes, it’s not about being popular, attention-seeking, or hoping that others will remember her and glamorize her after she’s gone. It’s about ending her own pain and suffering — putting an end to the embarrassment and shame she feels. The adults she reached out to let her down, and this is an important lesson right here. Most of us who are going through our internal pain reach out in different ways. Some may be more straightforward with our pain, while others will try to hint at it in more subtle manners.
There may or may not have been anything that anyone could have done for Hannah (or any of us). I like to think that if the teachers had intervened, perhaps it would have had a different ending. But it’s not what happened, so one will never truly know — as is true in real life.
While her parents and friends may think they failed her, and are devastated by their loss, it’s important to understand that when someone commits suicide, it’s not about you, it’s about them. Don’t make it into your story, because it’s not yours to tell, or even understand. It’s natural to feel guilty, angry, regretful, or any emotional adjective you wish to use. When a loved one commits suicide, you are left with an empty hole and a lot of unanswered questions. Of course you should grieve as you would the loss of anyone. But try, as hard as it may be, to look at the situation from their perspective and give them the respect they deserve. You may not have even been aware of the turmoil they were dealing with inside of their own head. They may have been putting on a happy front for days, months, or years before they finally made the fateful decision to end their life.
When I was in my mid 20’s I was living at home with my parents after my recent divorce. Dad had been dealing with chronic pain from a car accident five months earlier — which now many years later, we understand that he had suffered a TBI. Doctors were telling him the pain was in his head, and he needed mental health services. He approached me one morning as I was heading out the door for work:
“I think I am going to kill myself,” Dad said.
“Oh? How do you plan to do it?”
“I am going to hang myself in the shed.”
“I see. Well, who do you think is going to find you? It will probably be Mom. You don’t really want that, do you?”
“No, I suppose you’re right.”
That was the end of the conversation, and a few weeks later it was found that my dad had a fractured vertebrae in his upper cervical spine, and he could have been paralyzed had he even sneezed wrong. We would later learn that the original doctor who told him it was all in his head was under scrutiny for several malpractice cases.
The story with my dad has a happy ending. But I can tell you this: while I would have been very sad to lose my dad, I would have completely understood. My dad was in intense pain for months. No one in the medical community was listening to his pleas for help. Knowing what I know now after going through my own cycle of chronic pain, I am amazed that he made it as long as he did, and that he actually reached out to me for help.
We all have our own inner battles, and it is NOT for anyone else to decide how we should live them out except for ourselves.
While the cliché saying of “It’s a permanent solution to a short-term problem” is thrown around after someone is gone, I cringe at the ignorance of those who just don’t want to understand. We must talk about suicide from a realistic point of view in order to actually help those who are suffering.
Let’s use “13 Reasons Why” as a tool to communicate with each other and our children, to help each other understand suicide isn’t something to be considered taboo. Having a healthy conversation is important for everyone involved, so please do so with an open mind and heart.
For those of you who were expecting a numbered list of 13 reasons because you didn’t catch the play on words … I have condensed it for you (but please do go binge-watch the show):
- Suicide a real thought and feeling.
- A person with brain injury is more likely to have ideations.
- A person with brain injury is three times as likely to succeed.
- It isn’t always strictly a mental health issue.
- Chronic pain is a real thing.
- Ideation isn’t a weakness.
- It’s not cowardly.
- It’s not selfish.
- It’s not glamorous.
- Stop saying it’s a long-term solution to a short-term problem.
- They may never ask for help.
- If they do ask for help — listen!
- It’s not about you.
If you are feeling like suicide is the only answer, please talk to someone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-8255 or Text 741741 from anywhere in the USA to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor.
If you would like to talk to someone from the Brain Injury Association of America, they can be reached by phone: 1-800-444-6443