I recently watched “13 Reasons Why,” a Netflix series depicting a young increasingly depressed teenage girl losing the fight with her will to live.
It’s based on the book by the same name.
She dies a horrible death, by suicide.
The same day she died, the character, Hannah Baker, sent out tapes previously made to the thirteen people she believed lied to her, bullied her, manipulated and abused her, ignored her, or simply disappointed her. How those kids handle her message is both fascinating and haunting to watch. Whatever you walk away believing about her, her friends, her family or her school, the show makes the point that kids with depression are walking around in plain sight.
But we have to be aware. We have to look underneath what may seem to be true.
I’ve read some of the accolades, as well as the criticisms of the show. “It’s romanticizing suicide.” “Most of the adults in the show seem out of touch.” “It didn’t talk about depression.” “Thank God someone is talking about how bullying can have such scathing and traumatic results.” “For the executive producer, Selena Gomez, it was a passion project. It’s meant to be real.”
Three themes were the most powerful for me. First was the theme of secrecy versus lack of privacy. Teenagers keeping secrets from teachers, parents, each other. But all of that in the context of rumor and gossip being fueled by the insidious use of social media to hurt and create scandal — the potential of all your peers seeing and knowing instantaneously your very private moments. The second theme is that of the continued sexualization of young girls, which can end horribly in rape or sexual assault, made more likely by social pressure, heavy use of alcohol and drugs. The third — how tragic it can be when someone doesn’t let others know that their will to live is slipping — that they feel overwhelmed with hopelessness and are disengaged from the impact their death might have on those who love them. They may even justify to themselves that their suicide would create welcome relief.
The characters in the show might be exaggerations. Certainly not every kid’s experience of high school is quite this painful. But it’s hard for many.
We’ve got to wake up. Depression is increasing in our children. A recent study, using 100,000 kids aged 10 to 17 who were self-reporting via computer, found that by the age of 17, 13.6 % of boys had experienced depression, and a whopping 36.1 % of girls. That’s one in three girls.
Michael Yapko, an internationally known expert on depression states:
“While we have known for many years there is a gender gap in depression, this study indicates the divergent rates for depression in boys and girls begin even earlier than previously understood. The gap is already sizeable by age 12.”
“These data add to the key arguments I’ve been making for years. First, when I wrote Depression is Contagious and Hand-Me-Down Blues and pointed to the social and intergenerational risk factors for depression, I heavily emphasized the need to move away from drugging people, especially kids, and paying closer attention to the social and cultural factors predisposing people of all ages, but especially young people, to depression. Identifying and addressing these risk factors hold the key to my second key point: Prevention is better than “mop-up.” By the time kids become depressed, the risk factors had already been in place and then gradually gave rise to a first onset depression.”
I recommend watching “13 Reasons Why” with your teens. (They may have already read the book or watched the show by the way.) You have to assess whether or not they’re mature enough. There is a lot of violence and of course, the audience sees Hannah’s death. So it’s difficult to watch.
But it can be used as a way of discussing your child’s world. What from the story fits for them. What doesn’t fit. Listen to their reaction.
My 22 year-old son said something the other day. “You know Mom, when you were growing up, people called each other. You might not drop by someone’s house, but you called them first. It would have seemed weird to just show up on their front porch. That’s the way my generation feels about calling. We think that’s way more intrusive than texting. So we text.”
I hadn’t thought of it from his perspective. I wonder how much more I don’t get, not because I’m not interested. but because I’ve underestimated how different our perspectives could be.
If shows like “13 Reasons Why” can help us understand our children’s world, to stop trying to understand it using our own generation’s norms, perhaps we can better help them get through what can be a trying time.
When you’ve sat in the room with someone whose child has died, the pain is so deep, it’s hard to breathe. When it’s suicide, the questioning is relentless and endless.
Maybe it’s too late for them.
It’s not too late for you and the kids you love. Here are ten things you can do – today.
- If depression runs in your family, talk to your kids about the symptoms and tell them it’s okay to talk about it.
- If you’ve struggled with depression, get appropriate treatment yourself. Show them that there is no shame in asking for help when your mind is foggy or your emotions not under your control. Kids imitate how their parents act. My adult patients tell me that if their mother’s or father’s mental illness was explained to them — and they were told it wasn’t their fault — that they did fine. It’s when it’s not talked about, or pushed “under the rug,” that kids are left to come to their own conclusion. And that usually means believing that mom “went away” because of something they did.
- Realize that you teach your child to think and act in a depressed fashion if you do. If you avoid conflict, if you isolate and don’t stay connected with others, if you must do everything perfectly and shame yourself when you make a mistake, they are watching. IF you feel horribly guilty for things that have nothing to do with you, if you give up trying when things get hard, they are listening.
- Talk about, when your children have grown old enough to understand, your own vulnerabilities. They’ll be much more likely to realize that everyone has their strengths, and those pesky vulnerabilities.
- Educate yourself about your child’s friends. Realize those friends are having a tremendous influence on your child.
- If your child’s behavior changes, if he or she begins to not care about things they used to, or loses ground in school, pay attention. It might be something situational. It also might be depression.
- Realize that not all depression looks like classic depression. What I’ve termed Perfectly Hidden Depression can be a part of a kid’s life as well, especially with kids who are highly driven.
- Get off your phone. Put down your IPad. Don’t allow texting during dinner. Engage, engage, engage with your kids. Go on device-free outings or even vacations. (Yes, that means you too…)
- Know their teachers and get involved as you can with the school. They live in that environment for hours each day.
- Occasionally and with their knowledge, read their texts and check out SnapChat. There is going to be some normal ranting going on about mothers being mean or dads being hopeless. That’s normal. But look for shaming or manipulating around issues of privacy, sex or drugs.
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