Recently I watched 13 Reasons Why, a sad and grim show on Netflix about a girl who kills herself and leaves 13 tapes behind explaining that the reason she did so was because the people in her life failed her. Most of those people are other students at her high school. In response to the show, there has been an outcry in the press about how the show failed to address mental health issues and unfairly cast blame. I can understand that reaction – I share the stomach-churning knee-jerk refusal to believe that we are really capable of causing that in each other.
And let me say loud and clear that I don’t think any specific individual holds the blame for a suicide – not even the one who committed suicide. Not even the one that feels most to blame for that suicide. In the show, the main character could have reached out for help in ways that she did not. And other people also could have made different choices that could have made a difference. But in the end the suicide was a result of hundreds of choices by many different individuals. No – no single individual is to blame. If you feel yourself to blame for a suicide, please take a step back from that caustic and destructive belief and realize there’s a larger reality at play.
On the other hand, we do make a real difference in each other’s lives. Our choices and lack thereof affect other people in profound ways. We live within systems – societal, community, family systems – that are either protective or not protective against suicide. And every one of us is capable of contributing to the problem – or to the solution. We are all imperfect and limited, but we do have the power to make choices that encourage and validate people instead of contribute to feelings of worthlessness or shame. As I watched the show, I felt deep sympathy for the struggles of each character as well as grief at the ways they hurt each other. In the end, there were two messages that I wished people would take away:
We all struggle – every one of us. And that’s OK. But please don’t struggle alone. Seek help and keep seeking until you find it. As a therapist, I am deeply aware that all support is offered by imperfect people – after all I know something of my own imperfections! I am also amazed continuously at the possibility of change, transformation and healing as people work together toward that end.
And finally, I hope this concluding message of the show is not lost: How we treat each other matters and we can learn to treat each other better. Every one of us has the ability to make a difference. Every one of us has influence. Therefore:
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)