In the light of a recent Netflix series, Tim Jarvis examines the issues of teen suicide and depression and covers some important points that all adolescents need to hear.
The recent streaming of ‘13 REASONS WHY’ documents 13 reasons, or more precisely 13 people, that contribute to the suicide of a teenage girl. In many way the series captivatingly and accurately captures the pressures that high school students live in and under. As one 15 year old reviewer writes on Common Sense Media, “TO ALL PARENTS OF TEENS: this type of thing happens all the time in high school! The profanity, the sex, the alcohol, and the smoking are things that teens are experiencing and taking part in every day!” That said, the show has faced criticism that it glamorises suicide and suggests that it can be used as a form of high school revenge. That may be so but in my view the most concerning shortcoming of the series is that it fails to map the full range of options that are open to young people who contemplate suicide.
I am somewhat nervous as I write this post as I really don’t want to minimize the reality of the dark places that many young people find themselves in. As humans our primal instinct is to survive, so one only has to imagine what state of mind someone has to be in to intend being an active agent in their own demise. Yet according to a study by the Medical Research Council in 2009, an astonishing 7000 people commit suicide in South Africa each year. The World Health organisation report on suicide documents how suicide rates in low and middle income African countries has risen by 38% over a twelve year period up until 2012.
This post, ‘13 reasons why not’ is meant as an alternative perspective to the series while still recognising the reality of where a young people may find themselves. These reasons also acknowledge that suicide is almost always linked to severe depression not actual circumstances. In addition many of these points are important for all teenagers to understand either about themselves or others.
- Significant strengths
It may not be apparent to you but you have significant strengths. You may not be aware of your gifts or abilities or you may just think they are strange, weird, or irrelevant. High school is an environment where only certain abilities get a chance to shine and only certain of them validated. As you get older the chances are good that you’ll learn more about your strengths, get a chance to develop them and ultimately use them in a meaningful way.
- Unique contribution
Given the blend of your DNA, personality, character traits, environment, experience, strengths (and weaknesses) you will be in a position to make a positive impact on your peers, family and wider community as you emerge from the restrictions of high school. You can, and will be able to, offer yourself in a unique way in order to contribute to your workplace, family and friends.
- Depression makes you blind
When depression has you in its grip it blinds you. You will fail to see much that is good about you and the world. Its true there may be much about your situation that is bleak and negative. I am often amazed by what some young people have to put up with and go through, sometimes the world really can be crap. However be aware that depression will rob you of the light that does exist.
- Work in progress
This is a big one. Many teenagers are extremely self-critical. That inner voice that just won’t let up on how useless and worthless you are is strong at this time. In the next 5-10 years you are going to change, grow and develop so much. You are not going to stay the same. I often fail to recognize past students at my school when I see them later in life, they have changed beyond recognition and in every way since they were in high school. It can be that way for you too.
- You are being lied to
Just as depression blinds you, it also lies to you. It tells you some pretty horrible things about yourself and makes you feel worthless. That inner self-criticism, and enduring late night fretting (what psychologists call rumination), are sure signs of depression. If you do this, you aren’t solving problems, you are in the depression spiral. “This is what makes depression so dangerous – it feels like common sense. It feels like a true reading of the environment – that no-one likes me, that I’m useless at everything.” so says Counselling Psychologist, Rob Pluke. You need to know this is not real, it’s depression or anxiety talking.
- You are not a freak
There are other young people who also have these struggles. One lie depression will also tell you is that you are on your own. Recent data from the WHO highlights that suicide is the second leading cause of death worldwide among 15-29 years olds. Research shows that issues such as depression and anxiety among young people are on the rise. It is estimated that one out of every five young people will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder by the time they are 18. You are not alone.
- There are adults to help you.
Part of the teenage journey is a separation from the adult world and an increased secretiveness around adults. This is natural, normal and even helpful to some extent. However, there comes a time when it is important to involve adults. An ongoing issue that schools face is teenagers trying to sort out fairly major issues on their own without a more mature perspective or input. After a certain point you need to turn to someone with a bit more life experience. This was a significant issue in the series as when the protagonist did turn to the school authorities the counsellor was portrayed as ineffective. Feeling isolated and that there is no one to turn to is one of the biggest factors of depression and suicide.
- There is more than one adult to help you
I am aware than many teens feel they have been let down by adults and therefore do not trust them. Sometimes these adults are in positions of major responsibility such as parents, counsellors and pastors and in some cases they have not only let a young person down but may indeed be a significant factor in the teen’s state of mind. Such a breach of trust is tragic but it is not the only story. If someone in the adult world has let you down it does not mean that others will. Look around you and speak to someone you trust.
- Your depression can get better.
There are many effective treatments for different mood disorders. Things do not have to stay the way they are. There are many different types of depression and anxiety disorders and talking to a psychologist who understands this and knows how to help you can make a massive difference in your life. Those feelings of anger, isolation and hopelessness can be alleviated.
- Medicine is an option
Some types of depression are what we call endogenous depression. This means they are rooted in your body, they are biological. In turn this means that you may need medicine to help you deal with it just as you would for any other illness. The synaptic connections in your brain and the neurotransmitters that help regulate these are complicated and particularly fragile during teenage years. Sometimes a little medication is what is needed to get things back in balance.
- Suicide is not romantic
It really isn’t. The Netflix series was fairly graphic in how it depicted an actual suicidal event. According to an article by Jacqueline Aitchison in ‘Thought Leadership’, “The producers of the series knew what they were doing (they had 3 mental health consultants on set during filming).” According to showrunner Brian Yorkey they deliberately filmed the suicide scene, “to present suicide as something that’s painful and horrific – and certainly never an easy way out.” Perhaps where the show was lacking was in how it dealt with the aftermath of such a tragedy. Terminating your own life would be terrifying, lonely and lay waste to those you love. A friend of mine lost his brother to suicide when he was younger, it’s not something that you get over.
- Suicide is not an effective form of revenge
When young people fantasise around suicide (suicidal ideation) it can include enjoying thoughts of ‘that will show them’. It really won’t. Unlike in Netflix, people won’t be running around beating themselves up about how they treated you (except those who really love you). People have a remarkably good way of deflecting blame elsewhere. Even if they are responsible for making your life difficult it is unlikely they will acknowledge it, even to themselves. However everyone else’s life will be carrying on, but yours won’t.
- High school will end
Not just high school but also university or whatever the situation is that you find yourself in. How you feel now won’t always be the way you feel. Your current circumstances won’t always be there. It won’t always be this way. High school won’t continue forever, or even for very much longer. Far better to let high school come to an end than your life.
For more information read Vanity Fair’s full article on the shooting of the suicide scene