The suicide of Hannah Baker (the protagonist in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why) has millions talking – literally. There were 3.5 million tweets about the show in its first week of streaming. And, while the majority of teens and young adults who will watch the show already have, there are many parents out there just now realizing, they should watch it too. In fact, who had yet begun watching was a main topic of conversation among the moms at a school fundraiser I attended last night. Parents want to join the conversation about the experiences of our teenage girls: the bullying via social media, the sexual assault, and the engagement in self-injury and suicidal behaviors. As someone who has devoted the last 15 years of my professional life to the study of suicide and self-injury in adolescents and young adults AND as a mother of three growing sons, I want to join too. And, as the 13 Reasons Why conversations continue, I urge us to not only focus on the social and psychological struggles of girls but on those of our teenage boys too.
Don’t get me wrong: girls are victimized in the show and in real life, are at risk for the problems named above, and, indeed, Hannah’s is a tragic, traumatic story. Throughout the series, Hannah is the victim of bullying spurned by social media stunts and rumors, witnesses her friend get raped, and then gets raped herself. She feels disconnected from her one confidant and is unable to reach out to her (seemingly supportive) parents for help and ultimately dies by suicide. However, there is another suicide (or serious suicide attempt – we won’t know until next season) in the series – that of the boy Alex – that warrants attention as well.
As I began viewing the series, I was prepared for the powerful and sometimes graphic scenes involving the brutal treatment of girls. I was not, however, prepared to find my heart aching dearly for many of the male characters in the show. Although there is one clear perpetrator of sexual assault, most of the boys are niceish kids. They are boys who find themselves caught in complicated situations and at a loss as to how to solve them. Boys who are overcome with strong emotions of depression, anger, and sadness and don’t know how to express them. Boys who find themselves being pressured into covering up and acting tough, despite knowing what they are doing is wrong. Boys who turn to alcohol and drugs to cope, and in time, express thoughts about depression, self-injury, and suicide themselves. Most, including Alex, who ultimately shoots himself in the head with his father’s gun, experience several risk factors for suicide including symptoms of depression, exposure to a friend’s suicide, substance use, and access to firearms. Unfortunately, the experiences of the boys in the show may not be too far from the experiences of boys in real life.
Here are some statistics. First, while suicide is a significant problem for all in the country, with rates steadily increasing over the past 10 years, boys and young men are over four times more likely to die by suicide than girls. This fact often surprises people, as girls are more likely than boys to attempt suicide. One reason for the higher rates in males is due to choice of method: males typically chose more lethal means (such as firearms) than females. However, there are other likely reasons for the higher rate. Although girls are at greater risk for depression than boys, rates of other mental illnesses, including Substance Use Disorders, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, and Conduct Disorder are elevated in boys. Additionally, when boys are suffering and faced with mental health issues, they are less likely to seek professional treatment and more likely to use maladaptive coping strategies (such as keeping feelings to oneself and turning to drugs to cope).
Thankfully, there is much we can do to improve the situation for our boys. There are known protective factors that help prevent suicide and promote health that we, as professionals, parents, caregivers, teachers, and the community in general, can influence. We can promote safe schools and keep guns out of boys’ hands via stricter gun control. We can foster relationships amongst our sons and ourselves as parents, coaches, advisors, and teachers. We can help reduce the stigma of mental illness and encourage help-seeking behaviors. We can turn attention to helping boys achieve in school. We can listen, openly, when our boys do communicate. Listen… to how they are feeling, what they may be concerned about, what issues are important to them. And remember, communication by teens may not come as an intimate, one on one conversation. It may be more blatant, such as sending over 3.5 million tweets out into the world about a new show they are watching. Young people in this country were, for better or worse, drawn to this show. Let’s listen and allow the energy of this 13 Reasons Why phenomenon to serve our youth well by turning more attention and resources to the social and psychological issues our teenage girls and boys are facing.
If you feel depressed or hopeless or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or suicide, please call the crisis hotline Lifeline at 1(800)273-TALK (8255) or text “HOME” to 741741 (crisistextline.org).