Why the ‘tragic revenge’ portrayal of suicide in media helps absolutely no one
By Rebecca Peterson, Humour Editor
I almost don’t want to name the Netflix series this article is a response to, because quite frankly I think it’s received enough free publicity. However, for the sake of context, I’ll bring it up: This is about 13 Reasons Why.
If you’ve managed to avoid people on your Facebook feed either sharing trailers and articles praising the series for addressing mental illness in teens “unflinchingly,” countered by articles explaining why it fails to do all the things it supposedly set out to do, let me sum it up for you really quick. The series is about a young girl who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of tapes explaining how her death is actually the fault of her classmates, many of whom did admittedly horrendous things to her, or at least looked the other way as these things were done. In the end, it’s communally accepted that this girl killed herself as a result of the actions of others, and those “responsible” learn some kind of lesson about not being horrible to people and they become better people as a result.
This is an idea that’s been touched on many times before, that suicide can be used as a final, devastating weapon against bullies and the willfully ignorant. That the person who dies is nothing less than a martyr for the cause of showing people that being mean to people is… bad. And such stories also throw in the complex idea that suicide is, wouldn’t you know, also bad.
Let me get something straight: This story is a myth. A dangerous, stupid, painful myth.
The idea of suicide as revenge is a romantic one for troubled teenagers, who often don’t understand the finality of their actions. They can imagine, with clarity, how people will react to news of their tragic death, how the people who should have done something sooner will bemoan the errors of their ways. This is all without taking into account that should they succeed, they won’t be around to see any of what they’re hoping will happen. There is no satisfaction, there is no closure, there is no real ending. And yet, a lot of media aimed at teens tends to show the exact opposite, further fueling the idea that suicide can be used as a tool or as an escape, when the truth is far different.
Suicide is complex. The motivations that drive a person to such a horrifically final act are often varied and—to those not suffering the same mental anguish—often incomprehensible. There’s no recipe book of lived experiences that leads to a point where someone has no other option than to end their own life—factors such as support systems, underlying mental health conditions, and even intention all have to be taken into consideration if one is to start looking for any kind of “reason.” Often, there is no “reason,” or at least, not one that is universally understandable.
How would I know any of this? Well, two reasons why: First, I’ve lost friends to suicide—not one, but two. Second, I’m a suicide survivor, which is a strange sentence to write, even now.
I remember what it was like being a teenager and battling with suicidal ideation. I remember those fantasies of escaping all the things that made my mind a horrible place to be stuck inside, and thinking that maybe people would feel bad for not treating me perfectly nicely all the time. That was when I would have had a neatly itemized list of all the “reasons why,” probably.
I also remember later, when the suicide ideation went hand-in-hand with a deep, clinical depression, and there were no reasons beyond just wanting it all to stop the way you’d want to turn off a TV if it was showing nothing but static for weeks, months, years, interspersed irregularly with images of everything terrifying and horrible you could possibly imagine. Mental illness is fun like that. It’s something I still struggle with to this day, though I’m far better off now than I was before my diagnosis and treatment.
But I also remember what kicked off those years of clinical depression, during which I had my closest near-misses: The loss of two of my friends to suicide, both of which I felt in some way responsible for, even if I didn’t admit it to myself at the time. Let me tell you, feeling as though you might be responsible for someone else’s death doesn’t make you a better person, it doesn’t make you kind. It destroys you.
And if I’d watched a show like 13 Reasons Why during that time, one that reinforces the idea that other people—other teenagers, other kids—can be responsible for someone’s suicide, it would have broken me even more than I was already broken.
Stories like this help no one. They don’t help teenagers battling mental illness, fantasizing late into the night about something they have no understanding of. They don’t help the friends and loved ones that are left behind after someone loses their battle with mental illness. And God knows they don’t help the dead. All they do is capitalize financially on the shock value of such a taboo topic, under the guise of trying to help vulnerable people. Even if that wasn’t the showrunner’s intention, that’s what it ultimately amounts to.
There are other, far better ways to help, without placing blame on anyone.
BC Crisis Intervention Contact Information:
Anywhere in BC: 1-800-784-2433
Mental Health Support Line: 310-6789
Online Chat Service for Youth: www.YouthInBc.com (12 p.m. to 1 a.m.)
Online Chat Service for Adults: www.CrisisCentreChat.ca (12 p.m. to 1 a.m.)