By Stephanie D.H. Evans
2 Corinthians 4: 16-18 (HCSB) 16 Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. 18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
I am grateful that the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is generating conversations about various topics that up until now were rarely discussed. The series depicts struggles that are often too familiar for our youth: toxic relationships, underage drinking and illegal drug use, sexual assault, bullying, broken homes, and suicide. The series depicts real struggles that our youth face; unfortunately, “13 Reasons Why” missed the mark. It missed the mark because instead of advocating for a solution it sensationalized the problem. It missed the mark because instead of raising awareness as to how individuals can access mental healthcare services, it propitiated the lie that those trained to help are incapable of helping thus increasing further doubt in someone who may have been considering reaching out for help. It disempowered the person struggling with mental illness by saying that others were responsible for how they were feeling. While our treatment of others does have a significant impact on the way others think, feel, and behave we are responsible for own our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In my personal and professional opinion, “13 Reasons Why” misses the mark because it fails to recognize the one thing that gives those contemplating suicide the power to overcome those difficult thoughts/feelings…if failed to depict that there is hope.
The show fails to discuss what most individuals struggling with toxic relationships, substance abuse, trauma, bullying, broken homes, and suicide need…hope. As a Christian, I am a firm believer that my hope is in the Lord. Second Corinthians 4: 16-18 states “therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. 18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (HCSB). As a Christian, it is my hope in Christ that gives me strength. For many individuals, faith in God is what gives them hope to overcome various life struggles. Yet faith failed to be a topic of conversation in “13 Reasons Why.” Research states that the majority of individuals contemplating suicide turn to a pastor or religious figure prior to acting on thoughts of suicide (Holmes & Howard, 1980). Faith can be a preventative factor for those who may be contemplating taking their own life. Despite someone’s religious beliefs, research supports that an individual’s faith and active adherence to religious practices can deter someone from acting on suicidal ideation (Cleary & Brannick, 2007; Ellison, 1991; and Ellison, Boardman, Williams, and Jackson, 2001; Hirsch, Nsamenang, Kaslow, & Chang, 2014; Kopacz & Connery, 2015). As a professional, I believe in holistic health. What I mean by this is that I believe our mind (cognitive), body (physical), and spirit (belief system) are impacted and influenced by one another. When one part of our being struggles the other tends to follow. So if we are going to raise awareness about mental health struggles we cannot neglect the physical health struggles or the spiritual struggles that individuals go through as they all contribute to our overall wellness. Since many individuals who struggle with mental illness rely on faith to get them through their particular struggles, it is unfortunate that this component to our overall health was neglected throughout the series. Faith often fuels hope. And it is hope that individuals need when they are experiencing a mental health crisis. Hope that what they are going through, what they are feeling, and what they are thinking is temporary. Hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel they are walking through. Hope that they are not alone.
PART 2: FINDING HELP THROUGH HOPELESSNESS
Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12 (NAS) 9 Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. 10 For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. 11 Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.
Though others may not share my belief in God, hope is something that we all need. As a psychotherapist, my role in people’s lives is to help them find hope. My job is to help others see that regardless of the horrific things that they may have experienced, the poor decisions they may have made, or the hurtful emotions and defeated thoughts they may be experiencing that there is HOPE! Hope is increased when individuals are able to access help. Help comes in many different forms. Help may come in the form of a teacher who happens to be the one stable individual in a child’s life. Help may come in the form of a school guidance counselor who notices the emotional pain a youth is harboring and connects that youth to additional resources. Help may come in form of a pastor who reinforces in someone that he or she is worthy and loved. Help may come in the form of a friend who is brave enough, kind enough, and cares enough to connect a hurting friend to a trusted adult who can help. Hope may come in the form of a therapist who offers a safe place for individuals to work through internal struggles and cope with life’s stressors. Hope may come in the form of a medication provider who recognizes that a chemical imbalance is occurring and offers medication management to meet that need. Hope may come in the form of a case manager who equips individuals with life skills and connects individuals to safe housing and stable employment. These are just a few resources that can offer hope to those struggling with mental illness. Individuals struggling with mental illness often need the help of others to overcome the various trials (internal or external) they may be facing. As a Christian, the Bible tells us in Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12 that “two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart” (NAS). This Bible passage emphasizes that individuals are stronger when they are working together but often individuals suffering from mental illness isolate and do not reach out to the resources that are available or they are unaware that those resources even exist.
“13 Reasons Why” missed the mark because it failed to educate viewers on the many resources that are available for individuals struggling with mental illness. Out of 13 one-hour episodes zero minutes were dedicated to educating individuals on the signs and symptoms of mental illness, the resources that are available to help, and that suicide is not an answer. Through an additional segment Netflix offers entitled “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons” we see a glimpse into the heart of those who created the show. From this 29 minute segment we see that it was the intent of the producers and cast to raise awareness about various issues such as bullying, sexual assault, depression, and suicide. The show did raise awareness to those problems but if failed to provide solutions. In the additional segment the author of the book “13 Reason Why” for which the series was based on, Jay Asher, commented that “the whole issue of suicide is an uncomfortable thing to talk about but it happens and so we have to talk about it. It’s dangerous not to talk about it because there is always room for hope.” Jay Asher is absolutely right on this point. We must talk about suicide. Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death in individuals from 10 to 34 (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC). In 2014 over twelve thousand individuals between ages 10 and 34 lost their lives due to suicide (Murphy, Kochanek, Xu, & Arias, 2015). For individuals ages 35 through 44 and individuals ages 45 through 54 suicide is the fourth leading cause of death (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC). Individuals struggling with thoughts of suicide need to know that there is help available and that it is okay to talk about those thoughts/feelings. While “13 Reasons Why” did bring awareness to the topic of suicide, it failed to address the topic of mental illness which often leads individuals to believe that suicide is the only option.
PART 3: DETECTING HOPELESSNESS
Romans 15:13 (NAS) May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
My hope is to educate others about the signs and symptoms of mental illness so that they may seek help sooner rather than later. Below are some signs and symptoms that someone may be experiencing mental health issues. Having one symptom alone does not typically indicate a mental illness but having a combination of these symptoms lasting for a period of several weeks should prompt someone to seek out further evaluation to see if he or she may be experiencing a mental illness.
- Problems with concentration, memory, or inability to think clearly.
- Changes to appetite (loss of appetite or overeating)
- Changes to sleep pattern (such as insomnia or sleeping too much)
- Inability to complete school or work-related tasks
- Excessive worries
- Feeling sad, empty, hopeless, or worthless
- Sensitivity in all five senses (light, sounds, smells, or touch)
- Increased irritability or restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable
- Serious decline in school or work performance
- Sudden changes in personality or exhibiting behavior that is bizarre or out of character.
- Unexplainable changes in thinking, speech, or writing
- Increased paranoia
- Hearing things or seeing things that others cannot hear or see
- Thoughts of wanting to kill one’s self or others
*Though all of the above symptoms should be taken seriously, should you or someone you know be experiencing the symptoms that bolded please seek immediate attention.
We must educate people on the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Early detection is positive correlated to improved outcomes. Individuals who contemplate suicide often struggle with things such as substance abuse, trauma, anxiety, depression, and low self-worth to name a few. “13 Reasons Why” failed to help individuals struggling know where and how to reach out for help. It is possible that the show even deterred some who may have been debating on whether or not to reach out for help from actually doing so by the series’ unhealthy depiction of what it might look like when someone does finally reach out for help. Unfortunately, “13 Reasons Why” insinuates that when individuals do seek help that they will be met with incompetent individuals who are too busy to recognize that someone else is in pain. The series, “13 Reasons Why” depicts a student reaching out for help and portrays the helper (a High School Guidance Counselor) as someone who is either incompetent to recognize the signs of emotional pain or too preoccupied to notice. This negative portrayal of someone in the helping profession will likely have the opposite effect of the shows intended purpose. I know that if I were struggling with mental health issues and the only understanding I had of mental healthcare treatment came from my viewing of “13 Reasons Why” that is unlikely that I would seek out that kind of help for myself. For any of you who may be struggling with mental health issues please know, that your struggles are important and there are mental healthcare providers out there that can help you through whatever storm you are experiencing.
PART 4: PARENTS BE AWARE OF THE SIGNS AND USE CAUTION
Deuteronomy 6:5-7 (NAS) 5 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. 7 “You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
Parents please know that suicide is preventable. One of the most common myths regarding suicide is that suicide cannot be prevented (Joiner, 2010). Research suggests that most often there are warning signs that an individual is contemplating death by suicide (Litman, 1996; Robins, Gassner, Kayes, Wilkinson, & Murphy, 1959; and Shneidman & Farberow, 1957). Litman (1996) stated that “seventy-five percent of the people who commit suicide provide advance communication of their intention” (p. 1). Warning signs are there, though due to various reasons those warning signs are often overlooked or disregarded (Joiner, 2010; Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene & Missouri Department of Mental Health, 2012). And please know, that as much as I wish they would turn to mental health professionals when they are struggling, research suggests that the mental health therapist is not always the first individual a person with suicidal ideations reaches out to for help. More frequently suicidal individuals reach out to family, friends, primary care physicians, and pastors (Holmes & Howard, 1980). So if you are part of a family, a friend to someone else, a primary care physician, or a pastor please educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of mental illness as you may be the first person that individual turns to when they are struggling. Please also know your limits, know when to refer as those struggling often need the care of trained mental healthcare providers.
As a Licensed Professional Counselor with Mental Health Service Provider Status (LPC-MHSP) and a parent, I would highly discourage parents from allowing their youth to view “13 Reasons Why.” This is not a series that should be viewed by impressionable minds or those currently struggling with mental illness. If you choose to allow your child to view “13 Reasons Why” it is imperative that you have open and frank discussions with your children about the topics which are explored throughout the series. It is completely irresponsible for any parent/guardian to allow a youth to watch “13 Reasons Why” without further discussing the shows content. Youth often have difficulty understanding that the pain they are experiencing is temporary and that help is available. Youth have difficulty understanding that death is permanent. In life, we do not get to hit continue once the “game” is over…there are no extra lives that we get to use. We get one life. For believers in Christ, our spirit will have eternal life, but death is permanent for our physical bodies. Please encourage others that help is available and that no one has to walk through life’s storms alone.
Stephanie D.H. Evans is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Mental Health Service Provider who has been providing mental health care services for over 10 years. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Clinical Counseling: Teaching and Supervision. Stephanie is also the wife of David Evans, Evangelism Specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Be aware of the signs and symptoms that could be indicative of a mental illness…and seek professional help immediately if you are experiencing any thoughts of wanting to harm yourself or others. Thoughts of suicide or homicide require immediate attention. For adults you can call 1 (800) 681-7444 should you or someone you know be in need of immediate help. For children and adolescents you can call 1 (866) 791-9221. Both of these numbers are operated 24/7 by trained mental healthcare providers who can assist you or someone you know during a mental health crisis.
If you would like additional information on how you can raise awareness and increase prevention please feel free to visit this website from National Association of School Psychologists which has a lot of wonderful information.
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