Rebutting the Hysteria: More Thoughts on “13 Reasons Why”

Last week it seemed like I was bombarded by articles on the impending doom descending upon our adolescents due to the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Pretty much every article cited a study done by San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health associate research professor John W. Ayers just published in the scientific journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Ayers and his team of researchers focused on United States internet searches between March 31, 2017 (13 Reason Why‘s release date) and April 18, 2017 (so queries wouldn’t coincide with the April 19 suicide death of former Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez). Every search phrase included the word “suicide,” omitting the word “squad” so searches for the film Suicide Squad wouldn’t contaminate the results. Then they compared those results with searches and daily trends between January 15, 2017, and March 30, 2017 to get a baseline sense of what those searches are like generally.

The findings showed that after the release of 13 Reasons Why, which follows the events surrounding a fictional teenager’s eventual suicide through a series of tapes she leaves behind, all suicide-related searches were 19 percent higher than expected.

While awareness-related phrases like “suicide hotline” and “suicide prevention” were up 12 percent and 23 percent, respectively, “how to commit suicide” increased by 26 percent, “commit suicide” by 18 percent, and “how to kill yourself” by 9 percent.

That said, it’s unclear if these specific internet searches were definitely related to the show. It also isn’t clear whether those searches actually led to suicide attempts or deaths. But Ayers noted that previous research has found a correlation between increased searches for suicide methods and actual suicides. In other words – Ayers is extrapolating his interpretation to what he thinks is causation – but can’t really show anything but what he wanted to show in the first place.

Studies like this are clickbait shrouded in an academic cloak. First correlation doesn’t prove causation. And second nothing, especially teenagers, operates in a bubble. There is no experiment group vs. control group to compare. Also, even more importantly, one would assume there would be an uptick in internet searches associated a popular teenage series (no matter the content and especially if it has weight). To think this curiosity will cause additional action where there already has been action – is far from conclusive.

In my May 12 blog piece, “13 Reasons Why” … And Why It Matters To Your Community, I made a case why I thought the series was a good thing for our communities, including both adolescents and adults. But I’m not one who thinks we need to shelter our youth from the “monsters under bed.” On the contrary, I firmly believe we should empower our teenagers to develop the skills and self-efficacy to fight back against the aforementioned monsters. For there will alway be monsters under every bed well past the teenage years. The better our children get at fighting them early on … the better off they’ll be later on in life.

What I stressed in my previous piece, and what the pieces based on Ayer’s research didn’t (anywhere) – was what is the role of the community and adults who run them. What role can those living with and around teenagers, not only parents – but mentors, neighbors and civic leaders, play in their mental health? What are these people doing to create environments that dissuade our young from getting to the point of such extreme disenfranchisement in the first place.

In “Why People Die By Suicide” (2005), Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, drew on the testimony of survivors, stacks of research and the loss of his own father to upend minds. He recognized the myriad pressures on a suicidal mind — substance abuse, genetic predisposition to mental illness, poverty — but identified three factors present in all of those most at risk: a genuine belief, however irrational, that they have become a burden to those around them; a sense of isolation; and the ability, which goes against our hard-wired instincts of self-preservation.

The question we should be asking ourselves is how should we combat this sense of isolation that breeds within our young people. Whatever the reasons why, the best way of combating destructive behavior, including suicide, is refocusing energy by providing positive outlets and alternatives. If your life has a purpose, you’re much more likely to spend your time and attention on that purpose rather than on self-annihilation. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself and escape in a bottle of vodka if you’re too busy helping those in an even worse space than you. For example, studies have shown volunteering often helps the person doing the volunteering more than the person being helped.

Even after we’ve addressed the reasons why and created positive outlets to focus on, we still don’t live in a Perfect World though. The human psyche is vulnerable. The monsters will always be there and no matter how much we try to ignore them … they’re still going to find their way out from under the bed into our minds. Or in the words of John Milton; “turn our heaven into hell.” The question ultimately becomes … how do we deal with them when they do. Do we dive into the bottle or the medicine cabinet – or do we shake it off and put the haze of gloom behind us? How much can we, or in the case of “13 Reasons Why” our kids – take? 

Salutogenesis and Self-Efficacy

Salutogenesis is a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a former professor of medical sociology in the United States. The term describes a health approach focusing on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). More specifically, the “salutogenic model” is concerned with the relationship between health, stress, and coping. Antonovsky’s theories reject the “traditional medical-model dichotomy separating health and illness”. He described the relationship as a continuous variable, what he called the “health-ease versus dis-ease continuum.”

In 2008 Scotland, specifically Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, adopted salutogenesis as national public health policy. Burns helped Scotland conceptualize health improvement differently, being aware that the small gains that resulted from a range of interventions can add up to produce significant overall improvements. Much of these interventions were and are aimed at empowering the populace through engagement with their own health outcomes.

Engagement creates agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. When fighting adversity, self-efficacy is your tool chest. It’s your ability to fight the monsters under the bed. One of the most potent defenses we have is engagement. This engagement can be with ourself, through our minds and bodies, or with those around us in our communities and neighborhoods. “Doing” is a prescription for well-being. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and self-efficacy.

Now as the supposed adults in this discussion (that is highly questionable at times though), isn’t our responsibility to step in and do something other than playing Chicken Little running around screaming the sky is falling. Our kids are fragile, as we are. Sheltering them is not the answer though. Empowering them and giving them access to engagement to boost self-efficacy is.

In the last couple decades we decided that the effective way to bring up our children is to strip them of opportunities to express themselves in benign ways as they wish. At the earliest age possible we relegate them to organized academic activities pounding reading instruction down their throats even in preschool rather than letting them flourish in unstructured play where they self-learn coping and socialization. It’s no wonder when they get into situations later on, outside of the constructs of the classroom, they don’t adapt well.

Even though our adolescents are exposed to the same information we adults are due to technology, we still often view them as less than people. Our teenagers are not the way we were. No matter how much we want to shelter them – we can’t. What we can do is help them acquire the tools to successfully cope and excel. And this responsibility extends well past the walls of our classrooms and even our homes. It lies open with everyone in our communities.

“I believe that the community – in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures – is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a  contradiction in terms.” Wendell Berry

The world we all live in is charging ahead at a speed no one could have envisioned. While we can pull from our experiences of the past – we can’t take them verbatim as the answer for the problems we face today. Our mission must be to use the past and mold the positive value it bequeaths us and let it evolve to a more relevant time of today and tomorrow. And central to this social inheritance is the Middle Ring of our neighborhood and community relationships.

Introducing the ‘Middle Ring”

A few years ago Marc Dunkelman wrote an excellent book on the evolution, or should I say the de-evolution of the American neighborhood, “The Vanishing Neighbor.” In his book Dunkelman introduces the concept of the Middle Ring. The Middle Ring is what Dunkelman calls our neighbourly relationships. This is in contrast to the inner-ring of family and close friends, and the ever-expanding outer-ring relationships fostered by the digital age and social media. Unfortunately the ‘middle’ is not holding, collapsing from pressures on both sides. Social media sites have brought our closest contacts closer and expanded our reach to include ‘weak ties’ that we know only through cyberspace. Compound this with the proliferation of politically and interest segregated cable and internet news outlets, we have little time or attention for anyone else, physically or philosophically. And what suffers are our neighborhood acquaintances, our communities and the memories of what they used to stand for.

There’s been much discussion in the last decade about the decay of the American community as we like to remember it, or as Hollywood portrays it. But really it’s the loss of the Middle Ring we’re seeing. We still have communities, they’re just not inhabited by ‘our neighbors.’

It’s the loss of these neighbors who were physically around that could be counted on (often without even asking) that’s creating a social divide in America. In the past, before World War II, our neighbors were our support. They were the doctors, the midwives and the handymen. They were where we could go to get food when we needed it. It’s what got America through the Great Depression.

We didn’t have to agree with them politically, socially or otherwise, but we knew them and they were still our neighbors. And we could count on them.

But with Roosevelt and the New Deal, the government became America’s support system. The help of your neighbor wasn’t as important. That worked fine, but that reliance on the township, the community, the neighborhood and in turn the nurture of our Middle Ring began to wane. It wasn’t so evident at first. But the chinks in the armour, so to say, were beginning to show, even back then.

And now it seems as if we’ve all but lost our Middle Ring. Maybe not physically. There’s still people who live next door and down the street, but we don’t know them. Maybe we’ve never even met them. We don’t know where they’ve been or where they want to go. And it kind of makes it hard to help them get there.

As a result our neighbors don’t seem to have identities – and neither do our communities. It’s hard to tell one from another. Maybe it’s due to the prevalence of homogenized big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Maybe its the MacDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner rather than Joe’s Diner or Martha’s Koffee Klatch. Maybe it’s the gated communities where unless you live in one … you don’t know who or what does. Maybe it’s all of it. But regardless, everywhere kind of seems the same. It’s like there’s planned communities everywhere, except they’re not intentionally planned.

It’s time to re-examine this way of life we’ve created – one that increasingly resolves around isolation not engagement. It this the world we want our children to have? Do we want their only access to the answers they need to grow up being on the other end of the screen of the iPhone? Our lack of attention to the communities we have socially and civically abandoned has given them no other option. It’s no surprise some of the most desperate see suicide as the only option.

Also last week the sentence came down on the “death by texting case.” Michelle Carter received sentence of only 15 months, while the prosecution wanted seven years. The mother of Conrad Roy, the boy who committed suicide at the encouragement of Carter is calling for new legislation to invoke mandatory sentences for future offenders in similar cases. As Bill Clinton once famously said, “you can’t legislate morality.” no politician is going to come to our rescue. Only we, the ones who live in our communities, can create them as we want to.

Since we’ve let our civic and social relationships, especially across generations, decline to the extent it has – shouldn’t we take responsibility, own up to the problem and make efforts right at home in our neighborhoods to fix them. Calls for mandatory penalties are not going to repair the social fabric of our communities, deter anti-social behavior or bring back a troubled loved one – no matter how impassioned they are. Only we, the leaders of our communities, can affect change by encouraging an embrace of empathy and compassion that jumpstarts a collaborative dialogue with our teenagers.

Whether you believe it or not, our children are more capable than we ever were at their age. We just don’t give them the avenues to express themselves to create environments around them to better fit the their social needs to handle the demands of the daily stresses they encounter in a over saturated world. And we’re sure not doing it for them.

“To learn is to accept that one’s growth—the endless process of becoming who they will be—depends on engaging the strangeness within themselves (the part that is perpetually open, unpredictable) as much as interacting with a strange world of knowledge that they can absorb but never know in its entirety on their own.” Maximillian Alveraz

The summer job at the gas station down the street or the pick up baseball game in the vacant lot are gone. We, the adults, have let them go away. We replaced them with Wal-Mart and volleyball summer camps (for our benefit more than theirs). What ever summer jobs might be left are filled by retirees too actively young or financially needing to retire. Cross-generational interaction isn’t based on physical collaboration – it’s from a spectator perspective. Distrust because of unfamiliarity extends up and down the age spectrum.

Our answers lie in inclusion and engagement across all lines. Our young people are assets if we treat them that way. Help them build their own futures rather than create barriers because we think they should act like we did (whether we even did or not). After all the world we’re living in will soon be theirs – and we will be the ones needing their help. The more successful the transition we provide … the better off we all will be.

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