In this era of social media, spontaneous knowledge and false empathy have become like gasoline to wildfires started by hashtag campaigns and amateur bloggers. We don’t care what our alleged “expertise” is doing to people who are actually dealing with the things we think we understand, as long as those views keep going up and people keep clicking that “like” button. As digital content continues to become the way of the future, desensitization is no longer a risk but instead an inevitability, and you can bet that people are going to find ways to market off of it, as Netflix has done with the young adult novel turned original series 13 Reasons Why. While awareness campaigns aren’t always a bad a thing, in the case of depression, anxiety, and suicidal feelings, unless you’ve legitimately experienced these things, you have no business trying to help people who have “deal” with them. You might see an opportunity for Internet attention, but this is something that could actually endanger people’s lives.
Before I go on, I’m going to break journalistic tradition by telling you why I’m qualified to be talking about this. I’ve been battling with depression for over half of my life. While it’s not as bad as it once was, it’s still something I have to deal with on a daily basis. When I was fifteen, something changed in me. I don’t know what it was. I don’t blame it on high school because as everybody knows…high school sucks. That’s just a fact of life. This was something else entirely. Whether it was kick started by one event or several, I remember waking up one morning and not wanting to exist anymore. Eating, breathing, sleeping, those things had suddenly become secondary functions to dealing with this sadness I didn’t understand and couldn’t talk about with anybody, because nobody understood or wanted to take the time to understand what I was going through.
The few times I did open up about it, I was told that my depression was the result of an absence of God in my life, or I needed therapy, or I was asked, “Why can’t you just be happy?” So I tried therapy, anti-depressants, I even dabbled in meditation, and while those things sometimes helped, all it was really doing was making me numb. Eventually I stopped trying to explain it. In fact, I stopped talking to people completely. I graduated high school and then isolated myself, spending a majority of my free time locked in my room playing video games or writing stories that nobody would ever read or songs that I would never sing. All I really cared about was finding the strength to get out of bed each morning and then surviving long enough to get back into it.
Ned Vizzini said it best in his novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story. “It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.” It’s Kind of a Funny Story was published in 2006 and was based loosely on Ned Vizzini’s five-day stay in a psychiatric ward in Brooklyn. NPR named the book #56 on the “100 Best-Ever Teen Novels” and there was even a movie made, starring Keir Gilchrist, Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan, Zach Galifianakis, and Emma Roberts. In 2013 Ned Vizzini leapt off of a building, ending his own life at the age of 32, leaving behind a wife and child.
Matthew Quick, the author of Every Exquisite Thing and several other young adult novels dealing with depression and suicide said this on the subject, “The mental health conversation is very important to me. I have friends that struggle with various mental illnesses. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety. I’m very interested in how we deal with that.” After spending three years living in his in-laws’ basement, battling depression, anxiety, and mood swings, Quick wrote The Silver Linings Playbook, which not only became wildly successful, earning Quick a PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mention, it was eventually adapted into a film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. What gives/gave Vizzini and Quick the right to write about these things is that they’ve actually experienced them. They’ve been in the trenches. They’ve gone through it, and for better or worse, came out with first hand knowledge of what these things are like, thus encouraging constructive conversation about them. On the other side of that spectrum, you have Jay Asher, the author of 13 Reasons Why, who admits to never being depressed himself, but instead based a story about suicide and depression on somebody else’s alleged experiences. And now, not only is there a successful Netflix show based on his work, it’s being watched by vulnerable teenagers all over the world. Do you see what’s wrong with this yet?
When I was in college, finishing my journalism degree, one of my teachers asked if I would write a piece on immigration for the school newspaper. I turned her down, not because I didn’t want to write, but because I couldn’t write something based on something I’ve never experienced, at least not with a clean conscience. And since culture appropriation is such a taboo thing to most, I stayed away from it. I knew it wasn’t my story to tell, and it would be disrespectful to even attempt it. In the case of Jay Asher, not only was this not his story to tell, he’s made a whole lot of money off of an experience that wasn’t his.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the premise of 13 Reasons Why, and yes there will be spoilers. The story revolves around a girl named Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and then leaves seven double-sided tapes behind, each detailing a reason why she killed herself and is meant to be delivered to the people whom the tapes are about. Entrusted with these tapes is a boy named Clay Jensen, who comes home from school one day and finds them on his doorstep. From there, he starts to unravel the mystery of Hannah Baker. While most of Hannah’s troubles revolve around things like bullying, name-calling and other typical things that happen in high school (though not acceptable things) the last of the tapes revolve around a rape that Hannah witnessed and her being raped herself. When she took her concern to her school counselor and expressed a desire to kill herself, she was told to either press charges or move on, which in real life is something that a counselor would absolutely be fired for saying. The book ends with Clay reaching out to another of his classmates who he thinks is suicidal.
Let’s assume for a moment that Asher’s motives were pure in writing this book. Perhaps he did want to “raise awareness” and get people talking about an issue that most people won’t touch. Did he do any research? Did he talk to a mental health professional or anybody who has actually experienced these things? Or did he simply observe something, and seeing an opportunity in a market that’s already over-saturated with novels about teen depression and suicide, decide to cash in on it? But, again, let’s assume his motives were pure. What he’s done is paint a picture of depression and suicide like they’re common teenage occurrences. Call them accessories for teenage angst and uncertainty if you will. Did he stop to consider that people who identify with Hannah Baker, whether they’ve had experience in being bullied, or have been called names, or have had bad experiences in the high school dating scene, might read about these events or see them on the Netflix show and not only decide they’re depressed, but see death as the only outcome? There’s nothing more absorbent than the mind of a teenager, and this is what makes this topic so dangerous.
In 1994, after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, a study done by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) found that 30,574 people killed themselves in the U.S. that year, and there was a sharp rise in teenagers seeking therapy because they were having suicidal thoughts. Though this has been debated for years, it’s widely believed that it was the daily coverage of Cobain’s death in the news that opened up the possibilities in the minds of young people, most of whom had never been exposed to the idea or even had a conversation about it. The CDC also estimates that for every actual suicide, there are 11 unsuccessful attempts. This means that the number of suicides in 1994 could have been a lot worse. The same thing happened after Marilyn Monroe’s alleged suicide, the suicide rate in the U.S. climbed by 12 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. What this shows (assuming the research is correct) is that you can deny it all you want, but teens are extremely susceptible to these things, and overexposing them without first having a legitimate conversation about it can be dangerous. It also shows that teens aren’t the only ones who are susceptible. Adults experience it, too.
By the time I reached my twenties, I found new, more destructive ways of dealing with these feelings. And while I stumbled down these jagged peaks, I kept convincing myself that I deserved it. Misery had become like a warm sweater, a comfortable refuge on a cold night. I found identity in this sadness (if that’s what it was), and I embraced it like an old friend. It wasn’t until I was half way through my twenties that I finally started to pull myself together. I went back to school, I made an effort to mend whatever bridges I’d nearly burned between myself and my family, and I tried my best to step outside of my comfort zone and make some friends. Everything felt so uphill, and it wasn’t made easy by the fact that in the avalanche of the past fifteen years, I’d completely lost the ability to socialize, have meaningful relationships, and truly care about anything that wasn’t tangible. About that same time, I started writing again, and in my upcoming novel Congratulations, You Suck, I attempt to talk about some of these experiences. However, just because I now feel like I can talk about them, it doesn’t mean I’m healed or that I don’t feel these things anymore. Recently, a group of people from my church showed up to watch a hockey game that I was playing in. While they were there for other people on the team, I still wanted to talk to them afterwards and say more than hi, but any attempt I make to socialize is still met with high levels of anxiety and fear. It’s like there’s a wall around whatever part of my brain I need to be social, and in a more drastic point of view, human. So I just wave, nod, fist bump and then hit the ol’ dusty trail, hoping it didn’t seem like I didn’t want to be around them.
The most recent case of suicide in the media occurred last week when Chris Cornell was found unresponsive in his hotel room. Cornell was responsible for some of the most influential music to come out of ‘90s. The 52-year-old grunge rocker founded Pearl Jam, and was the lead singer of Temple of the Dog, Soundgarden and, years later, Audioslave. His death occurred shortly after his last concert, where he eerily covered Led Zeppelin’s ‘In My Time of Dying.’ According to police reports, Cornell’s bodyguard, Martin Kirsten had just been in Cornell’s room to fix his computer and give him two Ativan pills, which Cornell was taking for anxiety problems, when he received a phone call from Cornell’s wife, asking him to check on him again. According to the wife, Cornell had just spoken to her and had sounded “groggy” but said “I am just tired.” When Kirsten arrived at the singer’s suite, he found him unresponsive with a red exercise band around his neck. When a medic arrived, CPR was attempted, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. Chris Cornell was pronounced dead at 1:30 AM. During his life, Cornell made millions of people around the world happy with his music, but that didn’t mean that he himself was happy. Cornell was the fourth on a list of grunge rock stars from the ‘90s to take their own lives, starting with Kurt Cobain in 1994, Layne Staley in 2002, and Scott Weiland in 2015.
Depression and suicidal feelings are serious issues that affect a large demographic of people. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Each year 44,193 Americans die by suicide, averaging at about 121 suicides per day. It’s not something that can be normalized by teen novels and television shows, even under the disguise of “raising awareness.” It doesn’t matter if you go onto Facebook after watching the show, and you write a paragraph about how you now emphasize with people who feel these things. You don’t. Not really. Perhaps the potential is there, but for most people who don’t feel depressed or suicidal, they’re going to forget whatever feelings they might have had the moment the credits roll and they go back to watching Full House or Gilmore Girls. And as for all of the blogs and articles coming out, written by alleged experts, there’s a distinct difference between momentary sadness and depression. Just like there’s a distinct difference between stress and anxiety. There’s also a difference between wondering what it would be like to die versus actually wanting to kill yourself. In fact, in the case of Ned Vizzini, even people who have gone through these things aren’t safe from the repercussions.
As for myself, while things have definitely gotten better, it doesn’t mean I don’t still deal with these issues. I might have laid a lot of my demons to rest, but most of them were only symptoms and not the underlying cause. I’ve learned to deal with these things through finding hobbies, making films, and writing. You can hear about some of my experiences in my upcoming novel Congratulations, You Suck (though they will be fictionalized). I’ve also made some good friends who might not know what it is I have and am still going through, but I know I can count on them to support me if I ever needed it. Will I ever be “normal?” Who knows? What exactly is normal? These days there’s a lot going on in the world that wasn’t normal before. We’re willing to have long exhausting debates over race, gender, sexuality, and religion, but the talk about mental health is still in its infancy and has a long road ahead. Though, it has come a long way since the days of lobotomies, shock therapy and insane asylums.
Please don’t take any of this the wrong way. I’m not in any way suggesting that you shouldn’t listen to music, or read books, or watch movies and television shows based on or written by people who have killed themselves. Some of these individuals have left incredibly influential works behind. I’m simply saying that before exposing people to them, there needs to be a conversation had. If you’re a parent and you’re letting your child read books that talk about depression and suicide or you’ve let them watch 13 Reasons Why on Netflix, make sure you talk to them about it. If you have a friend or loved one whom you suspect is going through these things, again, talk to them, and not because you watched a show or read a book. Open a constructive dialogue. Don’t let them think that these experiences are normal things that all teenagers (or people) go through, because they’re not, and thinking this can be life threatening in the worst of cases. And on the opposite side of that coin, don’t believe that you or your children will be the exception to the statistics, because, again, you’re not. It can literally affect anybody. I don’t assume that everybody’s experiences with these issues are like mine. Yeah, if you go through it and have a great support system to help you out, you could end up being fine. However, I didn’t. And I was never able to truly talk about any of this until the later half of my twenties. When I was a teenager, if I had blogs about depression written by somebody who has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and no history of mental health problems, I’d probably be in a lot trouble. Just like if I had a show like 13 Reasons Why guiding me through that time in my life, I might not still be here.
On a side note, as I was in the process of finishing up this story, an article came across my desk talking about how Zack Snyder, the director of the upcoming Justice League film is handing his directing duties over to Joss Whedon while he deals with the death of his daughter. While details are scarce about what actually happened to his daughter, what we do know is that she ended her own life.
At the end of the day, one question needs to be asked: When are we as a society going to start taking mental health seriously? We treat social issues like they’re a matter of life and death, but when it comes to an issue that actually is life and death, all we get is a Netflix show and some teen novels. Maybe it’s time that we as people rethink our priorities. In the meantime, make sure you’re talking to your kids about this. Make sure if you know somebody who suffers from depression that you’re there for them. They might not open up to you completely, but knowing a support system exists can make all the difference.