13 Reasons Why Not: Discussing teenage suicide

One of the biggest fears for most parents— maybe all parents— is losing a child. We worry about choking, drowning, freak injuries, car accidents, but we typically don’t consider suicide as an impending danger.

Suicide is rare overall, but for those under 24 years of age, suicide is the No. 2 cause of death after unintentional injury. Researchers speculate that, because teenagers and young adults are generally healthy, rarely dying of disease, accidents and suicide become leading causes of death.

Death is never an easy reality, and suicide comes with added baggage. Michael Kimball, doctor of clinical psychology at Center for Healing Connections in Monroe, MI., sums it up candidly: “The biggest message in suicide is ‘f**k you.’” He clarifies, “[Suicidal people are] people who are angry, who are depressed. Depressed individuals tend to have quite a bit of anger. According to Freud, depression is anger directed at self.”

The whole picture

Blame for the increase in teenage suicide focuses on bullying, with Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why solidifying this belief. Kimball disagrees with this simplification. “Suicide is commonly portrayed in isolation or in response to bullying. When you look at the whole picture, that’s not it. When a kid has a solid foundation— strong family support with good communication skills and a good rapport with parents— suicide doesn’t happen…. If [the parents] were as perfect as they were portrayed in that show, the girl would have never killed herself.”

“Suicide is not something that happens overnight,” Kimball expounds. “It’s not one incident; it’s a collection of things— beliefs about self and beliefs about others and the world.”

Jennifer Nagy, counselor at Ottawa Hills Jr/Sr High school, expresses a similar viewpoint: “My issue with a show like 13 Reasons Why is that it dramatizes and simplifies a very serious and complex issue. When a person is thinking of suicide or self-harm, it is not usually occurring in a vacuum. In my experience, there is a history of prior trauma or other troubling events in that person’s life. While bullying can definitely be a culminating factor, there are usually other experiences prior to that event.”

“With that said, I believe it is super important for everyone, students and adults, to really think about how they are treating other people,” Nagy continues. “It might sound cliché, but it’s so true that no one ever really knows what someone else is going through or has gone through. To be a kind and caring person in someone’s life can be very powerful — a reason for that person to look at life differently and to ask for help.”

Importance of discussion

One mother, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her son, faced her own worst fears. Her 16-year-old son admitted to her and her husband that he was having suicidal thoughts after a difficult breakup with his girlfriend.

The mother shares, “You don’t know if they’ll do it or not…there are so many people who do it. I really think suicide needs to be discussed; kids need to have an outlet. What if they can’t talk to their parents? They need someone to talk to.”

She continues, “You don’t get a manual as a parent; you don’t know how to act. I immediately told our doctor— I needed to talk to someone— and I emailed all of his teachers. [My husband and I] broke down and cried and told him we could never live without him.”

“We told him he had to think of everyone. Suicide affects the whole family. We told him he could tell us anything; we would never judge him. Boys are so hard because they don’t talk, and he’s a clone of his father who does not like to express his feelings. You can’t bottle it up though…you have to talk about it.”

Katie Vogt, social studies teacher at Springfield High School, also believes discussion is important. “I tend to be afraid to mention the word suicide, but after learning more about it, I try to use my sociology class and Teen PEP (Peers Educating Peers) as a resource for students to learn what to notice in someone who might need help. I think our general fear of talking about suicide can have negative effects,” Vogt says.

Nagy reiterates the importance of speaking up: “If other students are concerned that a classmate might be thinking about suicide, the best thing they can do is to tell an adult. It can be their parents, their school counselor, a teacher— it’s just important that they not keep it a secret or feel like they need to take on helping the student by themselves. It is crucial that they tell an adult that they trust.”

While suicide is a one of the leading causes of death for teenagers and young adults, they are one of the smallest populations affected by suicide. Middle-aged men, specifically white men, are the highest subcategory affected by suicide.

Kimball theorizes as to why this is the case. “They’re often divorced, and men do not do well with divorce. They start to experience loss, and they don’t do well with loss.”

Kimball clarifies, “Anecdotally, as we get older, our emotional issues come to the forefront. A lot of the damage is done before we’re 8. Maybe we get a nonverbal ‘Don’t be’ or ‘Don’t exist’ from our parents. You could be the fifth kid and they only wanted four, or the parents are [inadvertently] blaming their kids for their financial hardship.”

“Once that’s imparted, that’s what people are acting out, the idea that ‘There’s no place in this world for me….’ Smoking, reckless driving, drinking and driving— those are all suicidal behaviors. They are acting out the same message: don’t exist,” Kimball says.