Parents and kids alike have been talking a lot lately about the hit Netflix hit show Thirteen Reasons Why, which is based on a book of the same name by Jay Asher.
I will confess that I read the book a few years back, but haven’t brought myself to watch the TV series. When I read the book, my own kids were younger and the subject wasn’t quite as raw to me because my own kids weren’t in the middle of the social and hormonal drama that often defines junior high and high school. Also, the fact that my daughter shares a name with the character who commits suicide doesn’t exactly make it easier for this worrier of a mom to stomach.
I am not arrogant enough to tell you whether watching the show or reading the book is right for you and your family – a question that has already been debated heavily in churches and schools, in the media and on social media. The truth is, I’m not sure I can fully know what is best for my own four-member family unit – much less for yours.
And yet, the book does have me thinking a lot about suicide – and especially the realities that can lead our young people to end their lives.
I’ve had multiple friends and colleagues commit suicide through the years – starting when I was in junior high, continuing into young adulthood and as recently as last year. Every single time, the act absolutely knocked me to my knees. In some cases, the signs of the looming death were obvious. Other times – especially with younger people – the signs were not at all clear, even to family and close friends.
One of the things that absolutely terrifies me as a mom and an educator is knowing that increasingly younger and younger people are choosing to commit suicide. We are even beginning to see suicidal thoughts – and successful attempts – among students who haven’t reached third grade.
The book Thirteen Reasons Why – and I assume the show, also – does a good job of explaining why a fictional young person chose to take their own life. The reasons are outlined in extensive, gory, heartbreaking detail.
But it’s left me asking the inverse of the original question: What are Thirteen Reasons Why Not? Here is my (potentially feeble) attempt at offering up those 13 reasons. I hope that you will add your own. And maybe, just maybe, someone might be helped along the way.
1) It gets better.
I know this has already been said — a lot. But if I could work just one miracle for our nation’s struggling young people, I think it would be to help every single one of them truly understand this reality. America has an unhealthy love affair with high school that I never fully understood – even as a kid myself. I promise you, prom is not the best night of your life. Neither is homecoming or Beta club or the football playoffs. In fact, if you are an adult and you peaked at prom or even in the football playoffs, you likely need to seriously reassess how you are spending your days.
Being a teenager is awkward – even for the luckiest among us. Everyone hates their hips and their skin. No one is entirely comfortable in their bodies. Almost everyone would rather be someone else.
My advice for high schoolers is to lower your expectations. Try to collect a few happy memories with fun, smart, kind people – the sorts of people that you would be lucky to carry into your adult life. But know that you might not find those people until a little later. And that’s ok, too. No one’s high school life is a Disney musical, all singing and choreographed dance moves. If it was, how would any of us ever develop any sort of resilience or character?
2) And then it gets better (again).
Young adulthood can be challenging, but also a huge relief, because you at least are more in control of your choices. You get to choose who you spend your time with, what – and if – you study, and where you want to go. Odds are good your hormones have reached some sort of shaky ceasefire within your body. Maybe the angry acne that tormented you in your teens is calming down at least a tiny bit. By your 30s, life has the potential to get even better. You have more say than ever about what you do and who you do it with. You are no longer forced to sit side-by-side with the bullies of your youth. And in many cases, you have had the luxury of seeing karma take some of those bullies down a notch or two.
3) You can find your people.
If you are 14 and really love folk rock from the 1960s or studying molecular biology and you don’t attend a sprawling comprehensive high school, odds are good you struggle to find your people. As you get older, with some planning, you can construct a life with more opportunities for cultural exposure, done with other people who share your interests and values. Even if you are short on cash, the internet can probably bring these people right into your living room now.
4) You Have Vitamin D and Endorphins.
When all else fails me and my mood falters, I have found that one of the best things I can do is get some exercise outside. A long walk, shooting some hoops or practicing tennis often makes me feel better – and I promise you I’m not a jock. Sometimes, just sitting on the front steps and getting some sunlight reminds me that the world really is a beautiful place.
5) Someone Cares.
I know it’s easy as a young person to feel as though no one really cares. Sometimes, life seems to go out of our way to remind us how lonely we really are. It can be especially hard to feel good about your life if your parents are so busy dealing with their own struggles that they aren’t emotionally equipped to help you with yours.
But as an educator and as a parent, I really and truly have never seen a young person who did not have someone who cared. Maybe it was a teacher, or a neighbor, or a pastor, or a sibling. Someone really does care. Just the fact that you are a member of a community – in your town, in your school, maybe in your place of worship or a school club – gives you a natural connection to others. Use that. Growth that. Even when it’s scary and even when it hurts.
6) Your potential is boundless.
One of the cruelest – and truest – things about life is that in our youth we aren’t able to fully see our potential. We look at ourselves in the mirror and we see the flaws. We see the things that we want to improve – maybe the things that others have teased us about. And yet I can honestly say I have never, ever seen a young person who did not absolutely scream potential. If you are young, living and breathing, you have tremendous potential – potential to learn and grow and become more than you are now. Don’t squander that.
7) You really are beautiful – inside and out.
Lately, my own kids have been asking to see more pictures of me when I was their age. But since I came of age before the iPhone, I don’t have a ton of photos to share. And yet, when I do come across a photo and study it, I find myself astounded. Because – even with my weird, not quite matching clothes and lousy skin and frizzy hair, I was totally beautiful. I promise that you are beautiful, too. And that beauty comes from your looks, your youth, and also from the promise of who you are becoming each day.
8) There is help available.
Maybe you have an awesome school counselor or a professional counselor who is working with you. I hope that you do. But if not, someone from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available to talk. Call 1-800-273-TALK.
9) Suicide is a lousy form of revenge.
One of the criticisms of 13 Reasons Why is that it paints suicide as the ultimate form of revenge against people who might have made your life miserable. But here is the thing I have noticed about suicide: In six months, only your loved ones will remember and miss you. Suicide isn’t going to make mean people nice, and it’s not going to make them remember you more fondly. Your tormentors will have moved on to someone else. And you will still be dead.
10) The world is bigger than where you are now.
One thing I have seen in loved ones is that despair and sadness and depression can trick us into believing that our worlds are very small. As we deal with our problems, we interact less and less with others. We go fewer places. We see less to be excited about. But the world is a huge, sprawling, fascinating place. Push yourself to enjoy it and learn about it- and share it with others. Even on dark days, there is much beauty to embrace.
11) Oreos. And Pringles. And Ice Cream
I know that obesity and diabetes aren’t going to do anything for anyone. But a scoop of ice cream or a simple piece of chocolate or a cookie, in moderation, sure can make life seem a little more worth living. Indulge a little.
12) There are many things left to learn and master.
Despair cruelly tells us that life is boring – that there is nothing left to enjoy. Do you know how to play guitar? Speak Mandarin? Repair a carburetor? Do you know every 1990s rap song that ever was on the Top 100 charts? Find something that excites you and learn it. Odds are good that no matter what you want to know, you can learn almost everything you need to know just from researching online.
13) Suicide becomes your legacy.
When we are gone, one of the things that lives on is the memories of us. We all will be remembered in some way by others. We might be remembered as a really generous friend, or a dutiful son or daughter. We might be freakishly good at a video game or we might know a lot about history or a sport. But when a suicide happens, the decision to commit suicide often has the effect of overtaking our legacy. We aren’t as likely to be remembered for the kind things we did, or how much we knew about a given topic, or even the color of our eyes. We are remembered for the ugly, incredibly final decision to end our life.