For once, that Netflix binge was productive.
13 Reasons Why is Netflix’s latest cult hit. The docuseries chronicles lead character’s Hannah’s descent into suicide. This is more than manufactured teenage angst; the Netflix hit dives into weighty topics like slut shaming, mental health, and suicide.
Not surprisingly, some parents have expressed dismay about the program’s controversial content. According to detractors, 13 Reasons Why glorifies suicide; it promotes self-destructive behavior.
I disagree. 13 Reasons Why is a critical look into high schools’ hidden tumult. For me, it provided a much-needed reality check on cyber-bullying and rape culture. And, sadly, our collective acquiescence to it.
While self-righteous parents express outrage over 13 Reasons Why, the more bothersome issue: society’s collective whitewashing of suicide ideation. Instead, we are preoccupied with underage drinking and texting and driving. As moralists sermonize about the proliferation of fake IDs, we dismiss suicide ideation with a damning casualness.
“It is just a stage; you will grow out of it” are popular refrains to deep-rooted teenage angst. Why do we treat teenage mental health with a nonchalance more appropriate for the weekend’s Homecoming opponent?
I understand that mental health and suicide are squirm in your seat conversation topics. But suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 14 and the second among people ages 15 to 34. And what are our high schools doing to combat this epidemic? And, yes, epidemic is the appropriate word.
Here are some easy to implement ideas:
1) Create mental health safe spaces. Safe spaces are more than LGBT havens; they are retreats for any marginalized student to protect himself. While the LGBT community has popularized (and, arguably, co-opted) the term, why can’t high schools create safe spaces for anxious/depressed students? Here students can gather to discuss their shared trials and tributions: bullying, sex, parental expectations. And for our belittling generation decrying safe spaces (“kids nowadays are so spoiled”), today’s high school experience presents more challenges than ever before: social media prevalence, increasing selectivity of top-tier universities, greater income inequality.
2) Destigmatize mental health conversations. This means mainstreaming mental health discussions at the high school–however uncomfortable. And this means more–much more–than finding an engaging speaker well-versed in mental health topics. From teachers wearing safety pins (i.e. you can talk to me) to roving counselors specializing in mental health treatment to interactive classes on mental health management (yes, we can thankfully dump tech ed for a more practical class offering), the high school needs to be Ground Zero for mental health conversations. The challenge: engaging students on their terms. That guidance counselor? Instead of waiting for students to visit his stuffy administrative office, he needs to be on social media, reaching students via their communication methods. On Twitter, he could hashtag #BullyTheBully to encourage students to discuss mental health strategies; this easy act mainstreams mental health discussion at high schoolers’ level. The football coach? Instead of urging his players to “act responsibly” on those Friday nights following the big game, he brings in a rape victim to discuss rape culture and redefine masculinity. The lesson: Masculinity is more than scoring with the cheerleader; it is making sure the cheerleading beauty and her friends are protected from opportunistic predators.
13 Reasons Why casts an overdue spotlight on high school’s toxicity. Beneath the starry-eyed prom pictures, there are a torrent of issues threatening our kids’ mental health. For disbelieving adults, teenage angst is more than listening to Nirvana lyrics. And, yes, it requires a more thoughtful response than, “Our teenager will grow out of it.”
Or that Netflix series was worthwhile.