In the new Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” teenager Hannah Baker dies by suicide. Before she takes her own life, she makes a series of tapes expressing the reasons she did it. In her tapes, Hannah highlights bullying, rumors that were spread about her, and ways other people contributed to negatively to her life.
Unfortunately, as school leaders we don’t have much control over what students are exposed to, and we have limited influence over the messages the media sends. But what we can do is seize this moment to start a discussion with our students.
Teen suicide is a difficult subject, but as a therapist I believe we need to talk about it. Hannah represents one of the many students we lose daily to suicide.
The premise of the show places a huge emphasis on the negatives in her life, and you know what? I remember being a teenager, and I remember how easy it could be to obsess over the “bad” things in life.
The truth is we all hit streaks in life where depression or suicidal thoughts could get the best of us. I remember facing depression when I got laid off from the American Film Institute. I was running out of money, and couldn’t find a job. Negative thoughts were easy to fixate on. Luckily I had the skill set to fight through the hard times.
Hannah wasn’t able to pull through her negative experiences…but what would her story have been if someone had shown her how to navigate those thoughts? What if there had been a teacher, or counselor, or coach in her life who had taught her to process those thoughts instead of dwelling on them?
Would she have been more focused on “how” to overcome, instead of “why” to give up?
Here’s an encouraging truth: managing negative thoughts is a skill set which can be taught!
I always want to offer workable solutions in these messages, so here are tools which I apply in my private practice that you can use with your students today. These concepts help shift our thinking from a negative, problem-saturated outlook to a positive, solution-focused point of view.
- Turn negative thoughts into questions. If a student is always thinking “I’ll never get good grades,” then that thought will grind them down. But if we can train them to turn that problem into a solution-seeking question such as, “How can I improve my grades?” then they will realize they can make a change!
- Explain how challenges and hardship create resilience. It’s hard even for us as adults to acknowledge this sometimes, but it is undeniably true. As we face hardships, we become stronger. It’s kind of like shooting a basketball, the more you practice the better you get. Let your students know that, as they develop these skills, they will get better at facing problems. Encourage them to think of a time in their past when they overcame a challenge. Tap into the strength that was created from that situation.
- Let them know they’re not alone. If a student believes he or she is the only one facing these problems, then they will feel isolated and hopeless. However, if we explain to them that the challenges of depression and suicide have existed throughout human history, and that all of us have to overcome periods of darkness in our lives, then they will see that there are people around them who truly relate to their problems. It’s impossible to understate how important that can be for a person who is going through these challenges. Depression is often amplified by feelings of loneliness and isolation, so let’s alleviate those feelings by being honest about the struggles we all face.
Let’s learn a lesson from Hannah, and remind ourselves that it’s our job to teach young people how to overcome the negative thoughts that can plague any single one of our students.
If there is anything that we can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask. Our school assemblies were developed specifically to inspire students to tell their truth, find their voice, and be the difference. Our leadership summits are the ultimate opportunity to give students a voice in our quest to build strong school culture, and our SEL curriculum was developed specifically for students like Hannah. We could have called it the TEEN TRUTH: Coaching Program, but we chose to call it the RISING UP: Coaching Program because we believe that rising up over adversity is the single most important thing that a student can learn.
Thank you for all the work that you do. I am honored to be with you in this fight.
JC Pohl, LMFT-A
President & CEO, TEEN TRUTH