'Thirteen Reasons Why' - let's talk about suicide and bullying

Thirteen Reasons Why is a Netflix series set in high school, beginning in the aftermath of a student - Hannah Baker - taking her own life. Before she takes this final step, she records a batch of cassettes detailing events that led to her decision and her boyfriend and school mates are left dealing with issues of accountability and missed opportunities to intervene. If you plan on watching the show I’ll try not to give too much away but here’s a spoiler alert nonetheless.

I know I’m not the obvious target market for the show but I’m always interested to see how suicide is dealt with in the media since this is probably the most influential source of information for young people. Thankfully things have improved in the language used and the portrayal of people with mental ill-health generally but until very recently subjects like this were avoided, or covered in the press in a really insensitive way with sensationalised tabloid headlines about ‘psycho murderers’ and other degrading labels that only served to worsen stigma. Using film and TV to explore these kinds of issues can help balance out some of the misinformation that mainstream press peddles - it can dig beneath the headlines and make people think about the causes of mental illness and how the right treatment can be the key to preventing tragedy. Many mental health charities now advise production teams producing storylines in films and on TV about how to handle sensitive and emotive subjects in a way that doesn’t stigmatise people, and that doesn’t make people fearful of those with mental illnesses. 

The more we talk about these issues directly, the less taboo they are and the more we enable people to ask for help when they need it, which can only be a good thing

In the show, Hannah reveals secrets that various people would like to be kept quiet - both adults and children - some of these events are serious crimes, but most are just about people not standing up for the right thing, or looking the other way when someone else was doing something wrong.

The key messages I took away from it were:

    • The problem with how we define bullying
    • How schools tackle bullying
    • How we still minimise sexual abuse and assault (inc. rape) happening between young people
    • Laying blame for suicide

The problem with how we define bullying

Firstly, I think the series does quite a good job of questioning what we actually mean by bullying. It isn’t just limited to school - it goes on in every walk of life, in every age group and culture. There are always going to be people who look for any weakness in another person and seek to use that to hurt or manipulate them in order to get something they want - and that is usually some kind of self-validation, especially in the school setting. This isn’t always an intentional act.
There is no legal definition of bullying in the UK. However, it’s usually defined as behaviour that is:
  • Repeated
  • Intended to hurt someone either physically or emotionally
  • Often aimed at certain groups, eg because of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation

It takes many forms and can include:
  • Physical assault
  • Teasing
  • Making threats
  • Name calling
  • Cyberbullying - bullying via mobile phone or online (eg email, social networks and instant messenger)

Those suffering physical bullying regularly are clearly suffering both physical and mentally and physical damage is very obvious. But even in the absence of any physical harm coming to someone, the slow chipping away of self-esteem that happens as a result of long-term verbal bullying or emotional manipulation can be immensely damaging. There’s still a perception that ‘stick and stones may break my bones but word will never hurt me’, which I was certainly taught during school and that made my own experience much harder to cope with. Smacking a child in the UK is legal as long as no mark is left but it’s what that physical act represents that does the lasting psychological damage. This is the kind of draconian logic that keeps bullying alive and well in our seemingly civilised society.
My own story of being bullied through school was daily verbal abuse, low-level shoving and damaging clothing and property and then towards the end of my time in secondary school threats of violence. It never let up, so no matter what I did I knew I had to go into that environment every weekday when all I wanted to do was learn. The negative effects began as severe panic attacks at night, which caused vomiting and led to me being prescribed medication aged 14. I remember getting into bed at night and just instantly feeling waves of nausea, then I would often spend the night on the bathroom floor after wretching until I was exhausted. It broke me down to the point where I had frequent suicidal thoughts, developed anorexia and self-harmed. I never quite fit into a friendship group and friends frequently ‘broke up’ with me under pressure from the bullies. I don't blame them for that self-preservation - people suffered just for being seen with me. 
Despite many teachers seeing this going on - other students would flick ink all over my clothes and the verbal abuse was audible to everyone in the room - yet no action was taken until the day I had to go and beg the deputy head to protect me after having been on a trip where I was told I was going to be attacked after school. That day as I walked through the car park leaving school, two cars pulled up and 6 men got out with the girl who had threatened me. They got baseball bats out of the boot of the cars and surrounded me. I remember I was laughing because it seemed so ridiculous - I was one small girl and yet she needed all these people to help her exert her status. The fact that adult men would collude in this kind of behaviour still amazes me, especially when you think that shortly after this many of these people were parents themselves - as was she just over a year later. After this charade, she then approached me and held out her hand to shake mine, obviously completely disingenuously. I can only assume that this was a show of power - she knew I’d reported her and that any trouble would not go unpunished, but she wanted me to know that she could have me hurt if she wanted to. 
A decade later I got a message via Friends Reunited from her. It was an apology. Having her own daughter and seeing the pain caused by the usual ups and downs of teenage friendships had made her realise how hurtful she’d been towards me. I’d always joked about how ironic it would be for her to express regret one day but I really never expected her to have the guts to actually reach out to me like that. I forgave her but I can’t pretend I don't think she did it so she didn’t have to suffer, not for me. Forgiveness is wonderful in theory but in practice, people have a hard time being honest about the baggage that comes with it. 
Because there was no physical harm, no punishments were ever handed out so there was no deterrent for others. Many of the teachers were young and probably still finding their way (having been a teacher for several classes of 16-year-olds I empathise) and getting a hard time themselves from students. This was also reflected in the storyline of the show, where an inexperienced counsellor is out of his depth and seems to be taking the path of least resistance as opposed to trying to get to the root of the issues. I understand that teachers are human too and they definitely don't have all the answers.
Bullying can be covert and not immediately obvious even to those who are in close proximity whilst it’s happening. Now, more than ever, it can be almost anonymous. The internet provides a convenient hiding place for people to abuse others - social media allows bullies to hide in amongst other commentators who may say things on a one-off basis that in isolation seem ok. But one off comments can give rise to exactly the sort of validation that bullies might be looking for and making them want to keep doing it. When I was at school we were told that bullies had bad home live or personal issues themselves and that those circumstances were what drove them to abuse others. They were able to get a sense of control and power back by inflicting that pain on someone else. Internet bullying is no different, except it’s far more immediate and far easier to do with a lot less guilt.  If you never have to face the person, you can probably convince yourself that they’re not also a thinking, feeling human being. There’s a degree of separation that wasn’t there before we had virtual lives. Anyone who’s communicated online will have experienced that feeling of being a keyboard warrior - able to say and express things that you'd never have the guts to say in ‘real life’ - except it IS real life and those are real people. When online communication is an extension of school life, there’s never any time in a day when people can’t get to a victim. What was an issue for the duration of the school day becomes an issue 24 hour of every day, with a much bigger audience. Every facet of someone’s life can be affected - employment, family, search histories that can never be erased. What might take just a minute of impulsivity on the part of a bully may affect a victim for the rest of their lives - not just inside their own mind and memories, but also tangibly online.
Then there are the obvious issues of how social media curates reality so that any chink in our self-confidence becomes a gaping hole, adding to the cumulative damage. An innocuous comment from a friend or a like on a photo on a bully’s profile can create paranoia when you’re already feeling unsure of who to trust. Nothing is proportional online because of the lack of other cues we would be getting from interacting face to face. We have to present a version of ourselves suitable for every different social circle we’re in, which means we can’t always come across how we’d like to according to who we’re with, as we might do in other settings. Add to this the unrealistic way we’re presenting ourselves as flawless, ambitious, successful and physically perfect and it’s easy to see how self-esteem is hard to come by for young people. Even those who claim to be about self-confidence are constantly hammering home the need to be improving ourselves, because we’re not good enough just as we are.

How schools tackle bullying

By law, all state (not private) schools must have a behaviour policy in place that includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils.
This policy is decided by the school. All teachers, pupils and parents must be told what it is. This is something I don't remember being done at my school - I left in 1996 so I would hope things have improved since then.

Schools must also follow anti-discrimination law. This means staff must act to prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation within the school. The problem here is that kids say things they’ve heard others say, even when they don't actually mean them maliciously - most of my school year would’ve been expelled for homophobic slurs had this been enforced whilst I was at school. Young people don't always have the level of understanding of what discrimination really is to know if that they’re doing would count or not. I know adults who can’t see how something they’ve said might be discriminatory so it’s not exactly clear cut or well understood. 

During my 5 years of hell, I was persistently called ‘paki’ (I’m white btw and so were they), 'Moustafa' (I had hair on my upper lip because I’m a brunette) and told to ‘go back to Mecca’. I don't know how they made any of these connections - a far as I remember people weren’t talking about Muslims then the way they are now.

Unfortunately schools don’t always see this behaviour, or if they do, they have to consider whether taking action when nobody has asked them to will just make things worse. There’s a lot of reliance on parents coming forward and pushing things up the chain if no solution is found - and that only works if the parents of the victim are aware, they’re not at school after all and may not be vigilant on social media if they trust their own child. I can see myself in a few years time googling my child’s name to make sure I’m not missing anything dodgy going on.  

Perhaps if a straight A student’s grades begin to drop then more alarm bells ring - in my case this didn't happen so perhaps it was deemed that I wasn’t as affected as I was. This for me is the key in school intervention though - no student will want to show even further weakness by asking for help and may go to great lengths to avoid it looking as if they’re at all impacted by what’s going on. This shouldn’t mean they get no support. We need to be digging deeper.

How we minimise rape and sexual assault between young people

Consent will always be a slippery fish. In the show, the question of accountability is raised - and they don't hold back. Teenagers finding their way into the world of sex are influenced by so many factors and although these may not boil down to sex without consent, that consent can be gained under the duress of peer pressure. People still talk about losing virginity as if it were an inconvenience and a lot of the male objectification of women is accepted as banter with the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude. I turned up to my school prom with my boyfriend, and the first thing that happened as we walked through the door was that another boy said ‘nice tits’ to me. But we let that pass because hormones, right?

We were camping in the woods one night, a bunch of us all in a tent, again I was lying next to my boyfriend. I woke up in the night to find another guy with his hand in my trousers. I couldn’t move and I was scared to wake everyone and make a fuss, so I just lay there. That might not seem like a big deal, but to me it was a message that my body was public property, not under my control and I couldn’t choose who touched it and when. I told a few people about this after it happened and they just laughed it off. We minimise this kind of stuff because we don't know how not to without being labelled negatively - a prude, frigid, man-hater etc. I’m not saying this doesn’t happens to boys too, but since almost every woman I know has a story like this and not a single man, I’d assume it’s less common. 

If a girl like Hannah Baker lets you get to third base then she shouldn’t mind you taking a photo of her arse and showing the whole school, right? And then becoming an object to everyone who sees that photo. You dare to have sex, you relinquish your right to power over your own body. I never understand why people are surprised when women are suspicious of men’s motives when it comes to sex, given that this kind of thing has been normalised for so long during our formative years. Even parents have a more lax attitude to boys sexual behaviours than to girls. We don't teach young men enough about consent and how the way they talk about women and girls can be hurtful and degrading. We still have a newspaper in the UK with sexualised bare breasts on page 3 that children can see over breakfast. How are young people meant to interpret that? 

The perpetrator of rape in the show is protected by his friends because he has power over them too - he’s popular and rich and people don't challenge him because of that. It’s far easier for them to assuage their guilt by minimising it as just a drunken shag at a party - there was drink involved and nobody really remembers, so it’s safer to just pretend it isn’t a big deal.

Laying blame for suicide

When I first started watching, I thought about whether anybody can really be to blame for someone else’s choice to take their own life. They talk about accountability throughout the series and characters often talk about how they killed the protagonist by doing (or not doing) something. 
Hannah’s boyfriend it seems is unfairly punished simply because he didn’t feel able to express his feelings towards her, but I think it might have been more useful to explore what the alternatives could’ve been, since people already seek to ascribe blame as a natural reaction. Whilst i don't want to minimise how painful relationships breaking down can be, I don't we should reinforce the idea that our happiness depends on someone else’s love - obviously with the caveat that children who are unloved don't have much chance of turning out to be well-adjusted or able to love themselves and others and all children deserve to be loved by their carers.
In the show they made out like Hannah’s boyfriend was worse than the boy who raped her. As much as others’ actions can damage us and trigger mental health problems, is it realistic to attribute blame for suicide like that? A couple of the characters did question this but I don't feel it was brought out quite enough. 
I would’ve liked them to cover some of the ways we can help young people ask for help, and also how we can then provide that help. Now that many people are more aware of what mental health is (and isn’t) and have some knowledge of the various conditions and how they may manifest, there’s a lot of demand for the next step from here - what to actually do when someone is in crisis. It’s referred to as ‘mental health first aid’. Much of the fear people have of talking about mental illness centres around them not knowing what to do if someone does share with them and not wanting to say anything to make things worse. If we reinforce that someone else might take their own life because of something we do, aren’t we making that even harder?
When someone is already suffering enough to consider suicide, there’s a chance that even a lack of interaction could be catalyst. Ultimately they’re not in a state of mind that allows for rationality, so things that might normally seem perfectly innocuous become sinister. Being in pain every day isn’t tolerable for many people. But equally it might only take one person offering to listen and to hear them for them to step back and reconsider.

If you’re concerned someone might be considering harming themselves there are some things you can keep in mind to support them.

  • It can help to just focus on the day at hand rather than thinking about the rest of their life, so try and keep them focused on taking it a day at a time or even a minute at a time if a day feels too difficult.
  • Encourage them to describe their feelings and let them know you recognise how real they are for them, no matter how unreal they may seem to you.
  • Listen but don't judge - it's normal to have a personal reaction but keep this to yourself. Sometimes just verbalising their experience can be enough to help them step back.
  • Don't worry about filling the silence. Just being there can help.
  • Let them know there is help out there - you could call The Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90
  • Ask them questions to ascertain if they've already made plans to end their life, or if they've ever tried to do so before. Contrary to most people's fears, this won't make them any more likely to make a suicide attempt and can help you understand what to do next.
  • Find out if they're under the care of a treatment provider and whether they might allow you to contact them for support.
  • If you think they're seriously at risk, or if they've already harmed themselves, call 999 immediately and stay with them.
  • Your own safety is a priority - you cannot support anyone if you're in danger.
  • Seek emotional support afterwards for yourself. You may not feel affected but often this can be a delayed reaction.


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