So to start, I must confess — I have only watched the first episode of this popular and controversial Netflix series. I don’t know that I’ll make myself watch the rest. But, as a social worker and child therapist, I have been paying attention to the buzz generated by the show. I know so much has already been said, that everyone from mental health professionals to school officials have asked Netflix to pull the show, and pointed out that it not only glamorizes suicide but also depicts it in a deeply problematic way. I agree that this show could be dangerous, and encourage suicide among its viewership — an already incredibly vulnerable group, given that suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds and is recently on the rise.
But I feel a need to speak out on this myself, not only because youth choosing to end their own lives is a terrible tragedy, but because of my own experience. I have struggled with depression since adolescence. When I was 16 I took a bunch of pills — what we in the mental health provider world sometimes refer to as an “intentional ingestion” — and ended up in the ER getting my stomach pumped and then very briefly hospitalized. Nothing glamorous about those experiences, let me tell you. It was scary and miserable.
Now to be clear — I had not experienced the traumas that Hannah, the character in the show, had leading up to her suicide. I had a loving family, and was not bullied or assaulted by anyone. I was a shy, quiet, lonely kid, and I had recently experienced the death of a close friend, but really I was just so incredibly, crushingly, sad. The sadness pushed out every other feeling, leaving me with a huge weight in my chest and the feeling that I was always on the verge of tears. And along with the sadness came one of the most insidious symptoms of depression — a growing feeling of self-loathing and shame. I honestly felt the world would be better off without me, that I should have died, rather than my friend. This belief was not logical. It was not reasonable. But it was eating away at me.
And one day I realized this feeling wasn’t just going to go away. I felt I had no way to ask for help — I didn’t have the language, didn’t know this was called depression, didn’t know how to put it into words. I had a couple close friends, and great parents, but I couldn’t even think how I would begin to explain this to them. All could see was this awful sadness going on forever, every day of my life. And I knew I couldn’t live like that. So I panicked. And I took the pills.
Now one way I could go in telling this story is to stress that it can get better — and it can. It has. I’ve learned to cope. I have continued to struggle with depression, but my life has not, as it turns out, been an endless stretch of terrible sadness, more a typical mix of joys and disappointments.
But instead I want to stress this: I regret taking those pills. I regret the pain it caused my family. Some call suicide a selfish act, and I disagree, I see it as an act of despair and desperation. But depression does make you selfish — it’s a dark walled off tunnel, an incredibly painful form of self-absorption. I know I’ve been terrible to those close to me when I’ve been depressed. At times I’ve asked too much, asked them to fix me, to save me somehow. Other times I’ve shut them out, become silent and unresponsive, sarcastic and sullen. The regret I feel over these actions is deep and real — sometimes it washes over me in waves. I’m grateful for the understanding and patience of my loved ones, grateful for forgiveness and the ability to rebuild relationships. But I’ve grieved over the hurt I caused, the connections that couldn’t be completely repaired.
To return to the topic at hand — It’s not fair to put someone else in the position of being responsible for your entire emotional well-being. It’s not right to threaten suicide to influence the actions of others. Suicide is not a tool of revenge, it’s not a way to get back at someone. It is a terrible, desperate, tragic act. The pain caused by suicide, threats and attempts included, radiates outward, through relationships and over time.
So instead of thinking of thirteen reasons to commit suicide, or thirteen people who need to know how they’ve hurt you — think of thirteen reasons why not to do it. Think about the people you don’t want to hurt, the things you don’t want to miss. Think about thirteen things you want to do in your life, thirteen ways you can help others, or just one person who cares about you. Make a list. Start small, ask for help, and don’t give up. Or as Kay Redfield Jamison puts it: “Look to the living, love them, and hold on.”
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “help me” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.