13 Reasons Why- Thoughts from a Counselor and Survivor of Suicide

The pang of the word “suicide” sends a shockwave of emotion through the hearts of those of us  who have grieved our way through this tragic departure. Years before I became a counselor or experienced a personal loss to suicide, I was a mental health advocate. I dedicated countless hours of undergrad to promoting suicide awareness through leadership in several student organizations. I recognized the importance in the absence of experiencing the impact. At that stage in life, I might have made the choice to indulge in the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why”.

Fast-forward to today. Life has a funny way of using our experiences – good and bad- to mold our minds and prune our perceptions. Here, I sit- three and a half years after a tragic loss to suicide. Two years into my career as a school counselor. And while these life changes have further propelled my purpose to increase suicide awareness, the lense in which I view “awareness” has drastically changed.

Several friends, loved ones, or folks who simply know about my experience with suicide, have inquired about my opinions of this show. Well- I cannot provide feedback that will validate or invalidate the plot of the show, because I have not watched the show. My refusal to watch the show is not an intentional attempt to discredit the story-line. For those who choose to watch, the matter of choice is your own. However, I would like to shed some light on the gray areas about what suicide is and what suicide is not. 

Suicide is not anyone else’s fault. My understanding of this series is that it captures the stories, events, and people that contributed to the character’s decision to commit suicide. As a survivor, I will be the first to say that this is a dangerous perspective. Pointing a finger of blame for a life being taken will not bring a person back to life. However, it will plague the people being “blamed” with the heaviness of guilt that will haunt their lives like a curse, forever. 
I remember it clearly -the empty feeling at the pit of my stomach- having been the last one to see my boyfriend just hours before he took his life- ten days shy of Christmas.
I vividly remember the hollowness in my heart when the police came to me at the scene to confirm that him not answering the door was because he was not alive.
I cringe as I remember the blood-curdling scream of his mother as I blankly stated the news over the phone. And my inability to walk, talk, or drive on my own in the hours that followed.
Numb. Perplexed. Empty. Guilty. – These are the immediate, natural reactions of the people who are left behind.  And whether it be folks who were supportive or folks who were hateful towards the person who took their life- nobody deserves to live consumed by the extra guilt of being deemed responsible. These feelings can cripple the mind and lead to a downward spiral of depression for those being blamed. 

Suicide is misunderstood by many young people. In my short time as a school counselor, I have conducted several suicide assessments- some high risk, some low. Each time, I struggle to keep my composure- to muster up the courage to ask the hard questions and be prepared for what might be graphic answers. Sometimes the kids share an impractical plan- one that would be expected for their underdeveloped brains. But more often than I’d like to accept, there is a detailed plan. Explicit details of how to end a moment’s pain for a lifetime. Low or high risk- behind every plan is the inability to truly conceptualize what that decision will mean. Developmentally, they cannot think analytically about the impact of that decision. 

Let’s face it. We live in a society that has grown accustomed to instant gratification. For these young people, this gratification is essentially all they know. Validation is one “like” away, answers are one Google search away, and many of the things they wish to indulge in are literally at their fingertips – one click away, one tap away. Why do we expect that their views of suffering would be any more advanced? With such a low tolerance for enduring and suffering, suicide looks like a quick answer to some of them – a “fast” route that they have the ability to control when life seems out of control. Watching shows such as this one could potentially have a negative impact on their (already) limited perspectives. 

Suicide is dangerous in its aftermath. My concerns about this show are not directed towards the viewers who are mentally stable. Rather, I am concerned for the countless viewers who are watching in the midst of a mental health storm. The one with the addiction. The one who has been bullied for their entire life. The one who is battling depressed feelings and “life or death” thoughts on a daily basis – struggling to choose life. For the mentally unstable person, an unintended consequence can result, in which suicide is glamorized. We must remember that these folks may be chemically imbalanced and unable to view this as “just an innocent series”. For some, this is not just entertainment- it mirrors their realities.

“If I kill myself, I will finally be noticed.” 
“If I kill myself, the people who hurt me will be sorry.”
“If I can’t find a way to defend myself in life, at least my struggle will be defended in death.”

These are not just my words and perceptions. These are words that I hear uttered from the very mouths of students with suicidal ideation. 

That is precisely why handling death by suicide is so tricky. We see the gray areas firsthand as school counselors. The careful way in which the death is announced. The common denying of students being able to decorate the deceased’s locker or facilitate a memorial. All because we recognize that many students see suicide as a way to finally be noticed by the kids and adults who treat them like they are invisible. We have seen the research and seen the numbers- the way one suicide can produce a domino effect. For the mentally unstable, the attention that this show is receiving may lead to further glamorizing suicide and the acknowledgement that is received upon deciding to end one’s life. 

Suicide is painful to envision.  Much of the commentary I have read, has touched on the graphic nature of this series. Particularly as it pertains to survivors of suicide, visuals can be disturbing. Unfortunately, some people have seen the death with their own eyes. Others found the body. Then, there are survivors like myself who were only left with knowledge of the method that the deceased chose to use – the gun, the rope, the pills, etc. While I am thankful that God spared me from seeing the death with my own eyes, my imagination was left running wild – playing out the “whats” and “hows” in my head like a shrieking, broken record. My friends, trauma is real. For a person who has never experienced trauma, some of these images may indeed be harmless. However, people who are consumed with trauma can be instantly reminded by a painful image. From a psychological perspective, even if that image is not the one they experienced, the visual still has the ability to evoke the heightened sense of emotions and trigger a painful response. I am making the choice to spare myself of this.

After reading these thoughts, I hope I have provided perspective for anyone who might be considering watching the series. My best advice is to consider where you stand, mentally. If you are confident in the stability of your mental health, watching it will likely be fine. But to any of you who are struggling with events that have impacted your past and present mental health, I would encourage you to consider preserving your future. Guard your heart and your mind.

My prayer for all who may be contemplating suicide: “Dear Father in Heaven, please cover each and every person struggling, with your peace – a peace that surpasses all understanding. Lord, I know that the mountains in their lives seem too big and intimidating to climb. And it is true- they cannot climb through their own strength. Help them to cry out to You. Reach Your hand down so You can pull them up. I pray that they find the hope that awaits them. I pray that they find their worth and validation in You and You, alone. Lead them to the help and encouragement they need to conquer these temporary feelings of defeat. And when they have overcome, help them to look back and see how You worked their circumstances out for good. Then lead them to help others in similar situations. I ask this sincerely in Your name. Amen.”

Remain hopeful. Stay anchored. Refuse to sink.


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