13 Reasons Why We Need to Talk about Suicide is a movie project that came about in response to the Netflix series. In mid-2017, teachers in many of the schools we work in started asking us how to address this series, which many of their students were talking about. It was a double edged sword. On the one hand, it opened up the topic of suicide to a huge segment of the population where previously it had been such a taboo subject. However, after watching the series, we had a couple major issues, which I’m sure many of you had as well.
First, we felt they sensationalized and almost glorified Hannah’s suicide by giving her a voice after her death. This is an extremely unsafe portrayal which could lead a young person who may be struggling with any number of risk factors –bullying, depression, sexual assault – to think that suicide could be a viable solution to their problems, or worse, a way to be remembered or means of “getting back” at their classmates. For a kid in or near crisis, this show could be both upsetting and dangerous.
Second, the series barely touches on the mental health issues that around 90% of people who die by suicide are struggling with. The show implied that those around her were guilty of her suicide, when we know that it is the individual themselves that makes the decision to end their life. The fact that Hannah’s mental health was barely mentioned reinforced the feeling that there is little hope for a young person who may struggling with a mental health concern in conjunction with the other traumas she endured. Yet we know, mental health is treatable, and suicide is preventable. This series did not impart this message to us and we wanted to change that.
Finally, the series painted an incredibly bleak picture of the supports a young person can turn to in times of need. Guidance counselors were unhelpful, at best. Parents didn’t understand and were reluctant to broach some difficult topics. Friends were flaky and offered bad advice. We want to show that in reality, there are many supports you can turn to if you are concerned for yourself or a peer. You’ll notice that within, or at the end of each of the 13 vignettes, there is a support listed (hotlines, coping skills, individuals), and we hope that young people will gain an understanding of the vast array of resources you can reach out to within your school or community.
More importantly, the final vignette outlines in 3 clear steps, on how to respond to a peer in crisis. If students, young people or anyone who views this takes just one thing away from this film, we hope it’s the empowerment to reach out to a friend in crisis and 1) Ask them directly, “are you ok” “are you thinking about suicide?” 2) Step back and listen and validate what they are going through, and 3) Get that person to a trusted adult or support.
So about the process of making a movie.
The vignettes were designed over the last 9 or so months with input and feedback from our amazing Peer Mentors, as well as the peer leadership teams we work with at Stoneham and Andover High Schools. A variety of different formats were used in an attempt to reflect the different ideas our peer mentors had. Some, such as one where a young man comes out as gay to his family used actors; some were silent and focused on stats; others were based on the Peer Mentors’ own lived experience. We hope the variety adds to the experience.
Finally, I’d like to thank the organizations that provide the support that allowed us to create this project, including DPH, DMH, Cummings Foundation and Eliot Community Human Services. I’d also like to thank Dan Perez for his amazing work directing, scripting and a million other things he did to prepare this work that you are about to see. There is no way we could have done this without him. Most importantly, I’d like to thank all of our Peer Mentors and Peer Leaders who acted in and helped direct, edit and pull together this movie. They are the core of The NAN Project and we wouldn’t be here without them.
We hope you find this film educational and more importantly, useful, in your work with young people. We’d love to hear your feedback and how you’d use this tool effectively when working with students. Enjoy!