Last month, I spent a week watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix. Then I spent a few weeks reading think pieces and op-eds on the show. Was it a triumph for mental health and making suicide a less taboo topic? Or was it a perilous oversimplification of mental health and in danger of spurring copy-cat suicides?
I’m still not sure. But when I saw a Snapchat from my little sister referencing the show, I knew I had to talk to her about it.
My little sister is 13. She is sweet and precocious and impossibly worldly. If I didn’t love her so much, I would hate her because she’s so much cooler and smarter and prettier than me. Anyway. She’s 13 and about to graduate middle school. In the fall, she’ll start high school.
I didn’t know what I wanted to say to her about the show but I knew it was important that we talk about it. I’m her closest sibling in age which I think entitles me to take the role of big sister very seriously. It probably annoys her but I’m just hoping it pays off and she makes better decisions than I ever did.
So there I was, the 24-year-old big sister, sitting at her desk and painting my nails sky blue, trying to casually talk to her about you know, suicide and rape and drinking and mental health. Which is not hard at all. Which I’m totally equipped for. Which has no real consequences if I mess it up. I took a deep breath and started. This is what I tried to get through to her.
1. Suicide is not glamorous.
Yes, people miss someone when they commit suicide. Yes, they might reflect back on their interactions with that person and have regrets. But it’s not glamorous or beautiful that the people they leave behind have to reckon with every small moment they shared with that person that, had that person not committed suicide, would have been rendered a small blip in a lifetime of moments. Suicide means you don’t get to grow up and go to college. Suicide means you don’t get to get married and have children. Suicide means you don’t get to have a full, messy, painful, beautiful life. It isn’t glamorous. A person commits suicide and their family and friends are never the same. They leave a hole behind. It might seem beautiful that Hannah’s friends and peers are regretting everything they ever did to her but that revenge isn’t worth her life.
2. High school isn’t that bad.
I’m not one of those people who loved high school. It was fine. It was weird and awkward and yeah, there were moments that I wanted to crawl in my bed and never get out but I got through it and it wasn’t nearly as traumatic and dramatic as Hannah Baker’s high school experience. I’m not trying to say that Hannah’s experience isn’t true for some people but I don’t want my little sister going to high school thinking that Hannah’s experience is par for the course.
3. It’s okay to be depressed.
One of the main criticisms of 13 Reasons Why was that mental health wasn’t directly acknowledged. That might have been the scariest part of me as a big sister of a soon-to-be high schooler. I told my sister that it’s okay to feel the way Hannah does – alone and scared and depressed. It really is. But I also told her that if she ever feels that way, that I’m there for her. That it’s okay to seek professional help for depression. That all the best people are in therapy. That she never has to suffer alone.
4. Rape happens.
This was the hard one. How do you talk about rape at a high school party without scaring a kid away from ever going to a high school party? It’s a fine line and I hope I straddled it well. When we talked about this, I realized that even if I bumbled my way through it, it was better than not talking about it at all.
5. Being a teenager is hard.
I’m not trying to sugarcoat it here. Being a teenager sucks. It’s confusing and weird and awkward but it’s also this really gorgeous time where anything seems possible and you’re growing into the person you’re going to be. So, yeah, it’s hard. But it’s not impossible and it does pass.
I don’t know if I nailed this talk with my little sister. I don’t know if she should have watched 13 Reasons Why. I don’t know if it’s helping teenagers talk more openly about depression and suicide. I don’t know if I said all the right things. But the important thing is, we talked about it. And we’ll do the same thing when season 2 rolls around.