Sunday, July 16, 2017

13 Reasons Why "13 Reasons Why" Needs To Be Addressed

Three weeks into me living in Nashville, my boyfriend embarked on a week-and-a-half long family vacation to Hawaii. And me, knowing no one aside from him in my new city and wishing that I too was roughing it in paradise...well, I was just searching for things to do. 

I completed half the work for my summer graduate courses. I wrote three research papers, read two books, assembled new furniture, took my car to get an oil change, shopped for my new classroom, and voluntarily attended multiple professional development trainings. (Yes, teachers, I was that bored.) 

And boredom was new to me. Mostly because procrastination is a foreign concept. Operating daily on a full dose of high anxiety, I don't really know the meaning of the word "relax." I looked at the calendar. It was only day three of Dylan's vacation. What on earth would I do for the other nine?! 

Racking my brain for what normal people do when they get bored, I plopped down on the couch and turned on Netflix. Then came the next question...what would I watch? And because I usually hate beginning new shows and movies I haven't seen before without recommendations, I looked for shows Netflix recommended for me. 

Based on your interest in Gossip Girl... 13 Reasons Why. 

I had seen a few episodes with a friend back in Springfield. Wasn't it a show about teenage suicide? Heavens. Keep scrolling. 

Based on your interest in Gilmore Girls... 13 Reasons Why. 

I was certain of it. It was that controversial mystery show where a girl killed herself and left cassette tapes for the people in her life to understand why. Yikes. 

Based on your interest in Remember Me... 13 Reasons Why. 

Welp. I'm pretty sure I read the book in like, 7th grade. So it does abide by my no-watching-till-I-read-the-book rule...

Based on your interest in Safe Haven... FINE, NETFLIX. I'LL WATCH 13 REASONS WHY. 

Which, if you are unfamiliar, is a one-season Netflix original TV-show, telling the story of a high schooler named Hannah who experiences exactly what every teenage girl deals with in high school, but Hannah just can't take it anymore. 

Not even a full episode in, I understood the recent controversy. It was graphic; so graphic it made me uncomfortable. It was undoubtedly a trigger to anyone who would understand what she had been through, and it gave you the false impression that someone who had committed suicide could still have control over the lives of the living after death. Which, aside from pain and grief, is essentially untrue. But people do leave notes. And while Hannah left cassette tapes instead of pen and paper...she did leave her thirteen reasons why. And it did affect those who received the tapes. 

And maybe that was a good thing, too. 

While I could see this show serving as a trigger to anyone who struggles with what Hannah went through, I could also see how it would bring understanding to those who do not. It was uncomfortable. It was graphic. It was ugly, and tragic, and honest, and real. 

Narrated from a completely passive teenage boy, 13 Reasons Why explores a multitude of topics such as: 

  • the domino effect
  • rumors / reputation
  • bullying / cyberbullying
  • objectification
  • slut-shaming
  • popularity 
  • perfection
  • sexual abuse
  • trauma / PTSD
  • the bystander effect
  • alcoholism
  • substance abuse
  • possible predators
  • victim blaming
  • fear of sharing experiences
  • peer / social pressure
  • neglect / passivity
  • depression
  • worthlessness
  • warning signs
  • suicide

And I'm sure I missed a few. 

The show's ultimate message is that there is nothing in any way glorifying about suicide. And while we all want to believe everyone knows this to be true...they don't. 

The bottom line is (without including any spoilers), both Hannah and those she encountered missed the crucial opportunities. Hannah missed every opportunity to share what she had been feeling and experiencing (as most teenagers are terrified to do, whether they are contemplating suicide or debating a breakup with their boyfriend), and everyone else missed the opportunity to question. No, not interrogate her situation...just ask. "Hey Hannah, how are you doing today?" 

13 Reasons Why shies away from no ugliness. To spare the audience of the graphic detail would be to diminish the very real situations the characters dealt with regularly. It makes the audience feel things they never wished to feel, but it certainly makes them understand what needs to be understood. 

I was three episodes in when I had the alarming thought... 

This was a young adult novel. I read this in 7th grade! It is so graphic! So intense! So uncomfortable! I was much too young back then! Gracious, I even feel too young, now

It wasn't thirty minutes longer before another thought nauseated me... 

Bethany, this is a young adult novel because this is young adult life. You read this in 7th grade because 7th graders are killing themselves. It's about a high schooler because high schoolers are killing themselves.

That's when it hit me. 13 Reasons Why wasn't about teenage suicide. And it wasn't written for the mentally ill. It was about teenage life. And it was written for people who don't see it. 

And after I finished the series (after only a day and a half because I had nothing else to do...), I sat there with the weight of my new knowledge on my shoulders, and I mapped myself a diagram. And in (ironically) thirteen steps, I mapped the vicious cycle of why 13 Reasons Why needed to be addressed. 

The Vicious Cycle of 13 Reasons Why

1. The scenarios and illnesses bulleted above are real issues. 

They happen. Every single day. Yes, even to those who are too young to ever experience them. 

2. The scenarios and illnesses bulleted above are universal issues. 

They happen to every race, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. They happen to every age where bullying and peer pressure exist. It doesn't matter what car they drive, what job they have, or how much money mommy and daddy give them. Everyone's ego is fragile in their heart, and everyone's insecurities are loud in their head. 

3. Few people are talking about these real and universal issues. 

My generation is pretty good about it. The ones above me? Not so much. It's not for lack of trying. Nor is it for lack of passion or lack of love. It's about lack of education, and an extreme lack of experience. There is an element that did not exist in their generation, because bullying and peer influence could not exist in the context of social media and technological devices. For teenagers today, their entire world is school and their social devices. Not only did former generations not experience this, but they did not talk about it among themselves like my generation does today. Because of this, they are so often uneducated and simply at a loss for words when the topic arises. 

4. Those who are talking aren't doing much about it. 

My generation? This one's for you. 

Knowing about it isn't enough. Talking and writing about it isn't either. Even if we think we know a lot about it, we probably still don't know enough. We need to recognize that every struggle and illness manifests and affects a person in a different way. There is no standard person, so there is no standard mental state. From there, we need to constantly recognize our own skill sets, and what we have to offer in these situations that can help. If there is no standard problem, there is no standard solution, so we need everyone's skills and support to make any real waves in this toxic battle. 

5. Those who try to do something are often bound by confidentiality. 

These are your teachers. Your principals. Your counselors. Your educators. We have to have reasonable cause before we can report any bullying or abuse to authorities, and are then asked for evidence to back it up before anything can be done. And because of the importance of maintaining the victim's privacy, it is illegal for us to tell anyone who can have immediate and direct impact on the situation. By the time evidence is collected and we are ready to intervene, the victim has likely lost faith in us, and we will be too late. 

6. Those not bound by confidentiality are crippled by reputation. 

These are the other students surrounding the victim. They almost never come forward, and it is even rarer to see them directly defend or step in for the person during the bullying or traumatic situation. This is not because they are terrible people, or because they are victims themselves. This is because of the bystander-effect. 

For those who are unfamiliar... The bystander effect is a subconscious act. The more people that are witnessing a situation, the less likely anyone is to step in because they recognize it is statistically more probable that someone else will help due to the sheer amount of people present. It's not that they don't want the responsibility on their shoulders; it's that they assume someone else will take the responsibility first. And that's the biggest problem with high school bullies. They always strike physically or verbally either in private where no one can witness, or in a hallway full of people where everyone can witness. 

7. Those not bound by confidentiality and reputation often fail to see the severity of these issues. 

I know, parents. I know. No one knows your kid better than you. Do you know how many times us teachers hear that every day? 

Time to pop your bubble... There are two groups of people who spend more time with your child every day than you do: their teachers, and their peers. The truth is... If parents were half as educated on these issues and involved in their kids lives as they think they are, then they wouldn't be so alarmed when they find out their child needs help, because they would've known the behaviors and prepared for action before hand. They wouldn't be so ashamed or so worried when they seek help and counseling for their child, and they wouldn't hesitate to learn everything there is to know about their child's situation. 

So just to clarify... Anxiety is not nervousness. Depression is not sadness. Eating disorders are not chosen behavior changes when a girl wakes up one day and decides she's too fat. These illness are chemical imbalances that affect the body's ability to literally function as a body. A student who struggles with anxiety doesn't just get nervous; they cannot breathe. A boy who struggles with depression does not just cry; he has to fight to even get himself out of bed in the morning. A girl who struggles with an eating disorder does not just diet; she physically cannot make herself eat because the person in the mirror is fatter than the person who exists in real life. This is Mental Illness 101. 

Likewise, bullying is not just mean kids. It's far more than sticks and stones. Objectification is not "boys being boys," sexual harassment is not flattering, and predators are not always villains. They are friends. They are boyfriends. They "swear they love you." These things are not clear cut, even though it is easy to say they are from the outside. The truth is, high school is brutal. Middle school is brutal. Even elementary is becoming increasingly unwelcoming. 

Each of the things Hannah dealt with in 13 Reasons Why are things that every high schooler has either dealt with and/or been exposed to. She experienced a thousand little things, as we all do. Each of the things she experienced was seemingly harmless. 

Until they built up and made her think that living that way was worse than not living at all. 

Bullying, harassment, objectification, and alcohol do not cause suicide. Anxiety, depression, and eating disorders don't either. But a combination of things, even the smallest of things, definitely can. 

8. Those who fail to see the severity do not recognize the importance of these issues. 

"Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you. No matter what. If you do not listen eagerly to the little things when they are little, they won't tell you the big stuff when they are big. Because to them, it has always been big stuff." 
-Catherine M. Wallace

Every teenager can weather a little hate-fire. If they couldn't, no one would be in school. But my dad always told me, "There's nothing more stupid than a 16-year-old boy," because boys are stupid. And girls are mean. We all know this to be true at every age, so what's the harm? 

The harm is in the non-chalance of these statements. We state them as fact. So when a girl comes to the school counselor crying, or a guy is beaten up in the hallway, we state the facts we know. "Boys will be boys," and "All girls gossip; just ignore them." And we do this instead of taking care of the real problem. 

Ignoring the severity of what we perceive to be the "little things" greatly diminishes their impact when a thousand little things are combined into one big thing. To us, since these little things "harmless," we cannot fathom them being important enough to fight against...

9. Those who can't recognize the importance of these issues don't look for the signs. 

...and if we can't fathom these things being important enough to fight against, we roll our eyes when victims come to us for help. We think they're being dramatic. We think they need attention. So we don't notice when they quit activities they once enjoyed. We don't notice when they withdraw from friends. We don't notice when they play hookie from school because they don't want to go, or when they can't get out of bed on a Saturday because they don't see the point anymore. We think they're needy. They just want attention. And because we think this, we ignore the signs that are so clearly in front of us. 

10. Those who don't look for the signs are blind-sighted by the effects. 

It's pretty common really. Have you ever re-read a mystery novel after you know the ending? All the signs are there, but you totally missed them the first time around. 

11. Those who are blind-sighted by the effects are left searching for answers. 

Loved ones are always left asking "why." When, if they were able to re-watch their story, I bet they would know. Because context is key. And we can't ignore the implications because "that would never happen to my kid." 

It happens to someone's kid every day. 

12. Those searching for answers attempt to find them in blame (often in blaming themselves). 

"We were her parents!" Hannah's mom exclaimed in the show, "How did we not know?!" 

They had no way of knowing. They didn't know a single thing about teenage suicide, nor did they really know what was going on in their daughter's life at school. They missed the signs, they never thought to ask, and they paid a price they never thought they'd have to pay. 

13. Those who end up blaming themselves fail to see the real problem...

These issues are real, universal issues. 

Something that teens endure every single day. These issues are not due to a lack of judgement or a lack of parenting. They are due to a lack of awareness.

And thus... The cycle begins again. 

So what can we do? 

I'm glad you asked. 

We talked earlier about how there was no standard person, nor a standard mental state. Likewise, there is no standard solution. 

The good news, however, is that there is no standard person; meaning that each of us is placed in a different position with a different set of skills to fight against it. In other words, the more educated and aware of this issue we are, the more we can combine our efforts to be the non-standard solution to the non-standard problem. 

Educators: It is your job to be teaching emotional education, but every early childhood educator knows it to be true: these opportunities for social and emotional learning are gone. There is no room for social interactions when students are young, and even less when they grow older. Our playtime has decreased immensely so they don't get chances to talk, we removed nap time so their brains do not recharge, and we took away all their emotional support when we introduced behavior systems to get our 25 kindergarteners to sit down and be quiet. So what can you do about emotional education if all your opportunities were taken away? TEACH! Good gracious, that's what you were hired to do. Find some way to teach it anyway. I remember being alarmed when I found out one of my college friends was changing majors out of education entirely. "I signed up to teach kids to read and write," she told me, "I didn't sign up for assessment and professional development and behavioral management!" My dear educators, you signed up for all of it. You signed up to be teacher and assessor and mommy and daddy and counselor and judge and referee and social worker and advocate. You do all of these all in one day. Teaching is what you do best. So educate yourself on all of this first, and then educate others. Educate your students so they know how they should be treated and how they should treat others, so they know what is right and what is wrong. And educate their parents, so they know what the potential of these situations are and can prepare themselves to handle them when the time comes. Let parents know they can ask questions. Let students know there will be consequences. And above all, let victims know that you are there for them. And tell someone who can get them help. There are loopholes in your confidentiality agreement (trust me, I'm on contract, too), and there are ways to get these children the help they need. 

Families: Love. That's your child. Your niece, your nephew, your granddaughter, or your great-grandson. Family involvement is so, so important in a child's life; especially when it involves school and their mental health. If you don't get it, learn about it. If you don't understand, question it. Analyze what is truly the best thing for your child, and don't stop searching until you find the best way to get it. Your resources include, but are not limited to, your child's teachers, school counselors, principals, district administrators, family care physicians, therapists, and of course (when all else fails), the internet. And if your child comes forward or shows any signs, let them know that you are there for them. And tell someone who can get them help. 

Friends: Be nice. It sounds so stupid, but it is so true. A common misconception is that teenagers commit suicide when they feel like there is no good left in the world. However, sometimes all it takes is for someone to feel as though the bad heavily outweighs the good. If there is anything, and I mean anything at all, that you can do to ensure that the good always has the most weight, it is worth a shot. Tell someone who can get them help. 

"Whatever you do in life may seem insignificant. But it's very important that you do it." 

Victims: Hang in there, beautiful. It's not over yet, and it doesn't have to be because you are so much stronger than you believe yourself to be. You deserve to have the moon and stars bottled just for you. Ending it now will not stop the pain; it will only pass the pain on to those who love you most. So please. If not for you, and if not for anyone else in your life, then do it for me: the blogger who spent two weeks constructing this post in her head just for you. Muster up even the smallest fraction of courage, and tell someone. 

Hear more about 13 Reasons Why from the actors, directors, writers, and counselors who brought it to life.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental illness or self-depreciation, you owe it to yourself to learn and reach out. Visit to gain more information or locate crisis / help centers in your area. 

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