One of the first questions asked by survivors of bereavement by suicide is – why? We are born programmed with an inner sense of self-preservation; fight or flight. If faced with danger we can access huge surges of adrenaline that may help us run from danger. We are taught our whole lives to stay safe and avoid anything that may harm us, so it can be a completely alien concept that someone would end their own life.
I have learned not to look for answers. Suicide is a complex subject and even academics and scholars cannot definitively tell us why people die from suicide. I know some survivors who find it helps them to cope with their loss by blaming a relationship break up, a job loss, financial problems etc., however there are millions of people in the world who go through devastating times but do not take their own life. I am always amazed when anyone asks me why Toby took his own life but they do not understand as I do that there is never a single reason. A relationship break up or a job loss or financial problems may be the final straw for someone who is suffering and it may be a catalyst, but not a reason.
I cancelled my Netflix subscription a few weeks ago, but I was told this morning that there is a series that has gone viral, aimed at teenagers called “13 reasons why..”. I read some reviews this morning and the storyline is about a teenager who takes her own life and then leaves 13 messages on cassettes to all the people who she holds responsible for her ending her life. So is this irresponsible and sending out a dangerous message to our teenagers? I haven’t seen it so will reserve judgement but I would say that when making TV shows aimed at teenagers there should be sense of responsibility. We should be making TV shows about teenagers overcoming bullies and broken relationships and building their self-esteem so high they can travel the roller coaster of life more easily. We should be teaching them that if they feel miserable there are plenty of other people who feel the same and that there is a lot of help out there they can access whether it be websites, help lines, school and college counsellors, and not forgetting their family and friends.
Making a drama aimed at teens implying that someone can get revenge on people that have treated them badly by taking their own life and then leaving them messages seems extremely irresponsible. Teens are especially vulnerable and there is evidence that glamourising suicide can cause contagion. In Bridgend in Wales around 2007/8 there was a spate of suicides and many of the suicide victims were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17. Most were male and many knew each other. The media were blamed for sensationalist reporting and social media memorial sites were set up for some of the teenagers who died which was also cited as a reason that might have encouraged others. It seems unbelievable that someone would choose to die to get recognition, but again we have to remember that teenagers are vulnerable to peer pressure and with the advent of social media the world has changed.
I am not a big fan of political correctness; however the media must be aware of the responsibility they have when reporting or making TV shows about mental health and suicide, now more than ever. I don’t know if the show has any kind of message at the beginning or end signposting people to helplines. I don’t know why Toby took his own life, I will never know and I have made peace with that. I know he was a young man struggling with life and spent a lot of time online, so maybe he was influenced by something he saw or read that made him see ending his life as a solution to his struggle. I also know there are many other young men and women who struggle with life but get through it and go on to lead happy, healthy lives.
On a positive note the show has led to a lot of discussion about mental health and young suicide, I would rather it wasn’t out there, but now it is let’s use it to educate and inform.