Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Semicolon & The Ripple Effect – How a Netflix Series is Opening Dialogue about Mental Health

Mental HealthMay is Mental Health Awareness month. Whether it’s a real life situation on the Coronado Bridge, or a post on social media, as a community we have become acutely aware of the battle that many face with mental heath.

What does the semicolon have to do with mental health? By definition, “the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop,” as defined by the Oxford Dictionary. The semicolon is being used in a suicide prevention movement — “Project Semicolon; Your Story is Not Over.” Life and its messiness, the struggle with how it affects mental stability — the semicolon can be a symbolic solution after a time of reflection and assessment of the next move.

The in-between place of healthy and unhealthy mental states can be a tough place, a place that is hard to get out of. Questions arise such as: Did I cause that to happen? Why didn’t I help them? Why did I make that choice? Do I cause my family to fight? Will people accept me for who I am? The list goes on and on, the burden of these questions gets heavy if they go unanswered. All of the questions, the burden – then, the semicolon… pause, reflect; get help and with guidance finish your story! Unfortunately there are times when people do not choose a comma or even a semicolon, they choose a period.

13 Reasons WhyA recent Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, with Selena Gomez as an executive producer, has been a hot topic as of late. The book, 13 Reasons Why, written by Jay Asher, was the inspiration for the television series. Trying to understand why this series took off like wildfire with middle and high school kids, I chose to watch the series. I was beside myself. At times holding my breath, other times frustrated that these youths would behave in such ways to each other, and ultimately sad that this depicts reality. It made me think about the everyday life of our youth, not just here in Coronado, but world-wide. I sought out different perspectives regarding this series.

For those of you who have not seen the series, I will give you a quick synopsis: The main character is a 15 year old sophomore in high school named Hannah. Life was good for her, until it wasn’t. There were situations that arose that she was a part of, or witnessed, that became her burden; a burden she chose not to carry anymore when she took her own life. One such situation was a rumor being spread around campus that she had been intimate with a boy, when she hadn’t. Then she could have done something to prevent a car accident in which one of her classmates dies, but she didn’t do anything about it. She also witnessed her classmate being taken advantage of after she had passed out from drinking too much, but she never said anything. Before she took her life (the suicide differs in the movie from the book, being more graphic in the tv series) she recorded her thoughts on 13 tapes as to the events, the what and the who, that led her to make the decision to end her life. While there are graphic scenes, the show really gave me and my daughter an opportunity to talk about the subject. We talked about the characters, the decisions they made, whether they were good or bad, and where we thought this girl’s mental state was and what led to her mental demise. With each tape something was revealed: a classmate, a situation, and her “truth” of the story. With Hannah’s voice-over and flashbacks, the story is unfolds. Part of me felt that having Hannah always in the story, even if in the flashbacks, it would seem to the viewer as though she was immortal, since she never truly disappears from the story line. My concern with this is that it may subconsciously give the sense that suicide may not be final.

The parent’s perspective. I really wanted to get a well rounded perspective of this series, the book, and the after effects, so I asked others in our community. One mom that I talked to stated that she felt there was most certainly an age in which it would be inappropriate to watch this, her daughter being around twelve, and she thought it wasn’t a good idea. However, she felt that if a parent was willing to watch it with them and have a VERY open dialogue regarding the content it would be okay. Another mother I spoke to, who has children of varied ages, said that while watching this series she understood that this young girl was stuck in the middle of all of these situations and struggling to find a way out. It had forced her to look back on her high school years, and realized that it was all there then as well, and it is still there. The main character is struggling with mental instability and really is not sure where to turn. One comment that I received was very profound; she stated, “I think the scariest part of this show is that Hannah’s parents appear to ‘know’ their daughter and take an interest in her life. It may have other parents questioning whether or not they are doing enough, or even too much.” That is so true. Do we as parents know enough, do enough, say enough; or be sure to react in a way that will not shut down the line of communication? Other parents said that watching how the students treat each other made them sad, and they wondered why kids had to be so incredibly mean to one another. Why wouldn’t kids want to bring another person up? Instead there are times they choose to put them down, or bully them over social media, or even if something is said or done to another person….why can’t they stand up for each other? It is time for parents, students, schools, and communities to conquer the many different types of mental health disorders, by (not limited to) being kind, being a good friend, implementing the “see something, say something” model, perhaps by offering anonymity. Kids are often afraid of the backlash if they choose to do something about an issue or situation they are in.

The educator’s perspective. A friend of mine who is a middle school teacher had stated that she felt the kids in her grade were obsessed with this series and thought that it was cool story, that they were not seeing the shock factor that many adults felt while watching it. Basically, not truly seeing the big picture; mental health and how it affects our lives on a daily basis.

A young teacher that I spoke with, Bekah W., gave me such wonderful insight. The most notable perspective is how she was able to take what was going on in the story, and translate it into to real life situations. She stated, “Jay Asher handled the situations this high school student went through in the book 13 Reasons Why a bit differently. First he emphasizes the theme of what he calls ‘the snowball effect’ throughout the entire novel. Hannah’s goal is for her listeners to understand that their actions impact others. Even if they did something that we might consider relatively insignificant, like spreading a rumor, she explains how that rumor did in fact greatly influence how others treated her. For example, in the book she says, ‘A rumor based on a kiss ruined a memory that I hoped would be special. A rumor based on a kiss started a reputation that other people believed in and reacted to. And sometimes, a rumor based on a kiss has a snowball effect.’ Asher continues to return to this theme repeatedly, even having Clay (the other lead character) question Hannah’s actions several times. After listening to one tape, Clay thinks to himself, ‘You should’ve called the cops, Hannah. It might have stopped this snowball from picking up speed. The one you keep talking about. The one that ran over all of us.’ In this way, Asher affords for a discussion surrounding responsibility in these situations. It was a conversation, quite frankly, that it seemed many of them had never had. What responsibility do they have when it comes to the way they treat others, when it comes to standing up for other individuals, and finally when it comes to witnessing a crime? The discussion culminated at the end of the book with the question of what Clay should now do with the tapes.”

She went on to state that there were other big issues handled differently in the book vs. the series. Notably, the graphic incidents that were detailed in the movie were not the same in the book. In the book, there was just enough information so that one would be able to imply what happened without the tough details to sift through or the graphic scenes. The last topic she discussed with me was the mental health of the character. Not only did they talk about mental health within the confines of the classroom, she had the counselor come in and talk about it with the students. I think that that was a very healthy approach, because the students were open to talking about it, and offer ideas on how they could make things better for students, themselves, and their community.

What do we do next as students, as parents, as educators, as a community? We start with how we behave towards each other. Is sending that text, Facebook reply, or Snapchat out to everyone worth the few chuckles? Is it necessary to make people feel bad because they don’t feel the same way about a picture on Instagram, a political position, a social stance, the same extra curricular activities, or even how others dress? Does it matter, does any of it matter? The answer is NO, it really doesn’t! Being kind to one another is what you want to be remembered for. Being helpful to those who may be privately and quietly in the midst of a battle. Being compassionate to others who are dealing with inner turmoil. We don’t know everyone’s story, but one thing we can do is make sure their story goes on; and they can move forward to share their struggles with others in hopes that it could help another person, then that person could share and help out another person…..a ripple effect of goodness.


Heather McNeil
Heather McNeil
Heather is a Navy wife of 20 years, a mom to two beautiful daughters, two dogs, and an educator. "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall" ~ Confucius Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]

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