When there aren't thirteen reasons why

    CW: Self-harm, suicide

    I tried to kill myself when I was 16 years old. I wish I could say that this was the last time I was suicidal.  But, the reasons for suicidality transcend the situational. In my experience, to be suicidal, one must be profoundly depressed, so lacking in self-confidence and hope that their most basic survival instincts are overpowered by the desire to stop living. This desire to end one’s life does not come about through one situation. Rather, it comes from a combination of mental illness, life circumstances and lack of emotional stability. This is where "Thirteen Reasons Why" gets it wrong.

    I should add that I did not watch the entire show. I watched the first three episodes, then stopped because I found it too triggering. And, honestly, it made me feel guilty for my own suicidal ideation. Hannah was traumatized and bullied; I have no such reason to want to end my life. And still, because of my mental illness, I have to fight suicidal thoughts on an almost daily basis.


    "TRW" presents suicidality as a result of a specific trauma, while, in reality, experience is only a part of it. Humans can survive the most traumatic events without necessarily becoming suicidal. But some people, like Hannah, choose to end their lives. I believe that underlying predispositions to mental illness differentiate those who decide to end their lives when dealing with bullying, trauma and other adverse circumstances from those who live.


    Chronic suicidality does not feel like cold, calculating revenge like Hannah takes in "TRW." Instead, it feels exhausting. It feels like walking from Tech to CVS to pick up your antidepressants is too much work and stepping into traffic would be a better option. It feels like studying isn’t even worth it because you will fail anyways. It feels like your friends would be better off without you because you never have the energy for plans. You hate that, but you still can’t make yourself go. It feels like it would be easier to just end everything than deal with the pain of living every single day.

    "TRW" makes a fundamental mistake when describing Hannah’s reasons for killing herself. Hannah asks her listeners, “What did you do?” If Hannah truly believed her woes were caused by others, she would not have needed to kill herself. In order to feel suicidal, in my view, you must believe that YOU are the issue. Other people can change. You are permanently you. That drives suicide.

    In my experience, the last thing suicidal people want is to hurt those around them. They truly believe that those around them would be better off if they were dead. For me, at least, one of the main reasons I sought treatment for my suicidal thoughts was because I did not want to hurt my friends and family. When I attempted suicide at age 16, I remember seeing my mom’s face when she met me in the emergency department. I will never forget her sheer terror when confronted with the possibility of losing a child. Since then, when I have experienced suicidal thoughts, I have recalled that moment and reached out for help.


    I wish there was a reason why I am suicidal. Because then maybe there would be something to solve. Instead, I can recognize the fact that I am living a privileged life and feel a lot of guilt about thinking about killing myself.  I go to a good school, I get good grades, I have friends and a loving family. Sure, I was bullied as a kid, but so were many children. I have no reason to want to end it all. And yet my brain tells me daily that I’m not good enough, that the best response to life’s stressors is to slit my wrists or swallow a bottle of pills. A suicidal person may have everything going for them and still be suicidal. That’s what mental illness is about. And it is why we must be on the lookout for signs of suicidal ideation even in those we do not expect to be vulnerable.

    I am not the only one struggling with mental health at Northwestern. Of all the students seen at CAPS during the 2015-2016 school year, 15.6 percent, a full 120 students, reported being suicidal. We have had two deaths due to suicide this year alone. Two smart kids who had their whole futures ahead of them ended their lives. I don’t think that any particular situation can be blamed for propelling kids who arguably have everything going for them to kill themselves. I think that only a combination of underlying mental illness, past traumas, and present stressors can lead a person to end their lives. Especially in the case of those who are chronically suicidal, the reasons why people may be struggling can be less than obvious.  Because of their mental illness, people living what others would describe as a perfect life can be suicidal. I think "Thirteen Reasons Why" does, at best, a poor job of depicting the reality of suicidality and mental illness. At worst, it can be downright dangerous. "TRW" makes suicidality look selfish and revenge fashionable. In reality, suicidal people become suicidal for reasons that are less clear. "TRW" can invalidate people who do not have clear reasons to want to end their lives like Hannah did. And, the show neglects to portray the other aspects of mental illness that occur with suicidality, continuing the media’s avoidance of showing what mental illness is truly like. "TRW" can be invalidating and triggering to those struggling with mental illness. I believe that mental illness should be seen in popular TV shows and films, but it needs to be done in a way that is tasteful, safe, and helping to promote discussion of the reality of mental illness.


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