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A reflection on how we talk about suicide

April 17, 2018

This piece deals with the topic of suicide, sometimes in a graphic nature.

I remember where I was when I watched the suicide scene in “13 Reasons Why.” Nestled in the comfort of my unmade bed on a Sunday afternoon, I watched the show’s protagonist — high schooler Hannah Baker — climb into a running bathtub with her clothes on. In almost deafening silence, she began to draw a razor along her wrists, panting like a wounded animal as dark, sticky blood pumped out of her arms to taint the water she lay in.

I am not one to shirk away from gore. I’ve watched Tarantino while eating breakfast, and didn’t bat an eye during the D-Day scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” But this got to me. Perhaps it was the loneliness and senselessness behind the death of a young person. Perhaps it was the incongruous nature of such a gut-wrenching scene in a series whose writing often felt more ABC Family than hardcore HBO. Whatever it was, it made me feel sick enough to close my laptop and call my parents.

“Hey, mom? There’s this show on Netflix called ‘13 Reasons Why.’ Don’t let Kate watch it.”

Of course, my then-13-year-old sister — always culturally three steps ahead of the rest of us — had already heard of the show and made the executive decision not to watch it, one of her few displays of self-restraint. She said it had sounded too depressing for her. According to research conducted by Northwestern, my sister was not the only adolescent to self-monitor with the heavy material.

In a study commissioned by Netflix, a group of NU researchers conducted research in multiple countries to examine whether the show promoted parent-child conversations about the tough topics presented in the series. One piece of data tracked why certain viewers chose not to watch the show. Report co-author Alexis Lauricella, an associate director of Northwestern’s Center on Media and Human Development, told me many younger viewers possessed enough self-awareness to know they couldn’t handle the content.

“A lot of (adolescents) made really smart individual choices,” she said. “They thought the content was going to be too much for them, they thought it was going to be too difficult to watch, they felt like they weren’t interested in it. A lot of (adolescents) do know themselves and know what they can handle.”

For those who watched the series, 72 percent of adolescent and young adult viewers said they thought it was beneficial for them to watch the show to better understand topics like sexual assault, depression and suicide, and 56 percent of parents said the series made it easier for them to discuss these topics with their children.

Yet, Lauricella noted that many parents felt the show didn’t provide the necessary resources for further healthy discussions. Even after watching “Beyond the Reasons” — a follow-up episode where the show’s actors discussed the messages they tried to impart through the series — 70 percent of parents reported the series didn’t do enough to direct viewers to appropriate resources.

The show’s inability to appropriately facilitate conversation around mental health has been one of its biggest criticisms. Julie Cerel, a licensed psychologist and president of the American Association of Suicidology, said in an interview with Teen Vogue that the show’s “quirky” portrayal of Hannah’s descent into depression wasn’t an accurate representation of suicidal thinking, and the show failed to explore the actual mental health reasons that would cause someone to decide to take their own life.

“It’s just not a realistic portrayal,” Cerel said. “It’s a portrayal built for entertainment.”

In a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in October, researchers found that internet searches for suicide-related topics rose to 44 percent above average following the release of the show, with queries of “how to commit suicide” averaging at 26 percent above the norm.

However, Lauricella said the NU study found that the majority of adolescents reported they thought it was necessary for the show to handle the suicide in such a graphic nature to show how “intense and upsetting” suicide is. Findings also reported that 80 percent of adolescents and young adults said people their age dealt with similar issues presented in the show.

“The content of the show, according to adolescents, isn’t that far removed from what they’re dealing with,” Lauricella said. “They felt like the show was a pretty accurate depiction of high school life. This was a relevant and timely show for them.”

We want to think of adolescents as retaining some semblance of innocence, to somehow have escaped the influence of the evils in our world, so it can be hard to hear that a show that deals with bullying, depression, substance use, rape and suicide feels like an accurate depiction of their everyday lives. But, if we really think about it, were our own high school experiences as idyllic as we like to remember them?

I remember where I was when I watched Hannah Baker slit her wrists, but I don’t remember where I was when I was told that my uncle had been found unconscious in a motel room after overdosing on medication. I remember being upset, and I remember my father’s face, travel-worn and tired from hauling back and forth to the hospital across state lines. But, if I’m honest, the rest is a bit hazy. There was an air of secrecy that kept it from feeling real. We never visited him; seeing my uncle in a coma dependent upon a ventilator was deemed to be too much for an 18-year-old girl.

We were lucky. By nothing other than the grace of God, my uncle miraculously surfaced from his coma a month later. His near-death experience gave him a new appreciation for his life and family, and he’s taken steps to work on his mental health.

We still don’t talk about the suicide attempt. In the rare instance it is brought up in conversation, it’s referred to as “the accident,” as if my uncle had dented someone’s bumper instead of been found cold and alone in a Motel 6 surrounded by scattered white pills. We’ve managed to push it so far from our memories there are times when I genuinely don’t remember that it happened.

But it did happen. And it has almost happened again in my life since then. There have been late nights holding sobbing friends, weeks where I didn’t let any call go to voicemail in case it was a plea for help. I’ve been blessed in my life to never have lost anyone to suicide as I know many have. But dealing with suicidal thinking has absolutely been a part of my everyday life, and I’d be telling a bald-faced lie if I said that “13 Reasons Why” wasn’t relevant as hell.

So, maybe the kids are right. Maybe our society needs a graphic depiction of suicide in popular media. Our society has worked hard to destigmatize mental health and suicide, but, if my family is any indication, we still have a long way to go. Yes, it is hard to watch. Yes, it wasn’t done as safely and tactfully as it could have been. There are plenty of issues with the presentation of suicide in this show. But maybe ultimately, as NU researchers pointed out, done correctly it could act as a battering ram, breaking down the door to conversation.

Read more from April’s edition of The Monthly here.

Email: janerecker2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @janerecker

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