Netflix has produced a series based on the young adult novel, 13 Reasons Why, which has started a dialogue on mental health and trauma among all ages and in the media. It was a very mature production for such a young group of actors and it was a great adaptation of the book by Jay Asher, I recommend getting the expanded version with a forward and essay by Asher. Here are a few of my thoughts on watching it while I’m working on what accomodations can make archaeology accessible for me with mental health condition type dis/Abilities. Part of what helps this process is writing about my experiences in a larger context and having it thrust into popular culture is very validating of my lived experience.
Hannah is the protagonist of the television series and book, who takes her own life and leaves a recorded suicide confession on seven cassette tapes. She was bullied, stalked at home and online, sexually harassed and objectified, had her reputation assassinated at school, raped, abandoned and vilified to the point she feels like she has no option but to kill herself because she can’t live with it. These aren’t isolated incidents in her life but interlocking events that cause her to feel reality is reflective of her compounded emotional trauma. I’ve lived a lot of what was in both the book and TV adaptation and survived it because I was given choices and options when I made my last ditch attempt at giving life a chance unlike Hannah who really didn’t make the most of what she decided was her last chance. For me, 13 Reasons Why articulates the things that went wrong in my adolescence and how they can be avoided now people are talking and paying attention and holding space for me when I feel like I’m thinking of giving life once last go. The trauma hasn’t left me though I’m trying to work through and make sense of it rather than letting me swallow me whole, but it’s easier to do now as a mid thirty-something than a teenage girl.
First I have to say this is not a comprehensive treatment of all the material and issues covered in Hannah’s posthumous revenge by mixed tape on the people she attributed to her death to. That was the twisted plot device of a sometimes unreliable narrator, because suicide never brings about true resolution for the victims or those left behind (unless you view your death as being a success) and while the television series seems to give a kind of narrative resolution for Hannah, that is by the way ofstory-telling rather than resolving her issues successfully. I understand the magical thinking of the adolescent brain and how Hannah tries to punish the people about her with her choice to die because I had that exact fantasy as a depressed 14 year old. Maybe not with the death note by mixed tape, but I did actually sit down and plot an elaborate mind map of who I thought was responsible for my suicidal impulses – and in the process I had a grim sort of satisfaction of how living with the remorse of my death would give me some kind of justice from the grave. I don’t relay these experiences because I think everything about teen mental health is about me and how I lived with it, but to add to the fact that this type of magical thinking is actually a reality in a suicidal adolescent brain and drive home it’s not just a clever fictional device like completing Hannah’s narrative arc.
These days I know much better that the sole responsibility around managing my mental and physical health is actually mine – blaming other people for my thoughts and feelings is unfair to them – but that’s the result of maturity and experience of living through my trauma and sitting with it in therapy. The important take away from this is that the decision to die was Hannah’s alone, but it was also on her to get help and the failure to do so was not solely Hannah’s. It was the adults around her as a teenage brain is not fully developed and able to deal with the consequences of this kind of decision making.
13 Reasons Why also addresses the paradox of Amy Bleuel of Project Semicolon’s recent death by suicide in that Amy and Hannah’s messages are not negated by the method of their deaths, but if anything the message is amplified by the people around them discussing and discovering what they can do differently going forward with the benefits of hindsight. I disagree when two of the characters say that they were all responsible for Hannah’s death, they may have unwittingly contributed but it was the adults around them that failed. Until recently, most adults weren’t aware of teen mental health and trauma having never grown up with it being in their lexicon of their adolescent experiences as something they could change. Amy did something about suicide awareness by giving the semicolon a new meaning for a group of suicide survivors in highly symbolic language that said surviving meant your story wasn’t over. I can tell you as someone who was living with fully disclosed bipolar disorder and complex post traumatic stress disorder, that I talked about it more openly than most, that these were revolutionary ideas for the time.
With campaigns like Project Semicolon, Hannah could have been alive if she’d known to take a few actions herself beyond leaving the counselling session because further help is available, I did it tenaciously and I survived but only because the people around me lived with the challenge that I presented to them: my life didn’t have to be like this if I was given help. She did not have to die alone.
One really important facet of the television series is seeing people of all ages take responsibility for the trauma they inflict on each other by recognising it and changing how they behave. While you are never directly responsible for someone else’s decision to take their own life, you can mitigate the damage by being kind and aware of how your behaviour effects other people but also by not being a bystander. The Bystander effect is essentially when otherwise good people witness an abusive behaviour right in front of them and do nothing about it. I found when it happened to me recently when I was harassed on public transport, the fact that no one stepped in to help me when it was happening and then some adult people actually laughed at what had happened to me for the entirety of my trip, was just as traumatic as being victimised in the first place by my harasser.
13 Reasons Why brought up the different types of abuse that happens in modern life and what the consequences are for the abuser and abused but also calling out the bystander effect on both teens and adults alike. It’s true to some degree that Hannah was failed by the people around her through inaction. One coping action that can change the balance in a real way that the television show called out and equipped the audience to do straight away in their own lives, that requires no special mental health training or learned skills, is to not be a bystander if they see someone suffering abuse and to actually ask “Are you okay?” So beyond RU Okay Day, ask the people around you how they are doing and refer them to appropriate help (see below).
One thing I feel the need to further draw awareness to since I feel in 13 Reasons Why they didn’t address this as I am an adult, not a vulnerable teen, is not letting yourself be a victim of the bystander effect if you have the presence of mind to be able to proactively ask for help from a bystander if you are in trouble. Two years ago, I was being relentlessly stalked by a local man to the point just getting bread & milk was an awkward and unsafe experience in situational awareness. Somehow I found myself (in a comedy of errors) in broad daylight where it was just me, the abusive creep and a local teenage kid from a nearby high school in an area of low pedestrian traffic, therefore immediate help. So I approached the young man the on the pretext of getting the time and explained quietly I was being harassed by the older man and asked if he minded walking with me to the main road near by. The young man was very understanding, no violence was committed by my harasser as most bullies are reluctant to act in front of a witness and I was not the victim of the bystander attack that day. While it’s a calculated risk, most people are willing to help you get help or at least to a safe environment.
I think that the Netflix series is a necessary resource in this age to address the mental health crisis going on, I certainly don’t want anyone else living through what I suffered without knowing there are other options to deal with mental illness & injury and trauma than killing yourself. I live with both a psychiatric illness and injury and often I question what my life would be like if I had to live with the bipolar disorder alone. I fantasise about having moved through my PTSD and living a normal life. It’s wishful thinking for me, but it could be closer to reality for the next generation of young people. Talk about it with everyone, suicide doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone, any time. The more we shine a light on the dark places, the more we open a dialogue about these hard and uncomfortable truths, the more we are able to bring about change and new approaches to mental health.
The number for the free counselling service at Lifeline is 13 11 14, any time, night or day.
The Suicide Callback Service has a 24/7 hotline that can be reached at 1300 659 467. They also have a website at: https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au/
Other resources for mental health and suicide include:
•The Black Dog Institute: https://blackdoginstitute.org.au/
Clara Rose Santilli, April 2017.