When someone takes their life we can assume they have been listening to the wrong voices, voices that challenge their existence, condemn their actions, and belittle their worth. Statements like
“Why do you bother? No one appreciates what you do anyway.”
“It’s not right that you continue to be an emotional burden on your family.”
“No one thinks like you. You just don’t belong.”
“I’m sure everyone would breathe easy if you weren’t around.”
“Your reputation counts for nothing. You’ll never get over this.”
“You’re too touchy. You see everything as a personal attack.”
“Toughen up. You won’t get any thanks for being a wimp.”
“Don’t expect people to trust you. They know what you’re like.”
We all have basic needs:
- The need to be loved – recognised accepted and affirmed.
- The need to feel secure – protected, respected and nurtured
- The need for significance – wanted, needed and validated
If these needs go unmet, it’s like having the foundations of your life crumble around you. Your resilience is undermined and your convictions and commitments challenged.
In his best-selling young adult novel, 13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher tackles some of the reasons for youth suicide. The story captures the thinking of teenager Hannah Baker and why she chose to end her life. Hannah documents the influences that robbed her of the will to live. She is candid in her criticism of her peers. She judges them for their careless words, and their hurtful actions.
She makes this assessment: “No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people.”
She draws this conclusion: “You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part… you’re messing with their entire life.”
Hannah argues that it was the total disregard for truth that destroyed her hopes and dreams. Why did Hannah believe the lie? Why does anyone believe the lie? It is because we
1. Distort the truth
The truth is, Justin Foley was Hannah’s first kiss. They met in the park at the rocket slide. Hannah slid down the slide and Justin caught her. They kissed.
Justin was focused on enhancing his masculine image. He wanted bragging rights. But often self- advancement comes at a cost and it was Hannah who bore the pain and paid the price. It was Justin who started the rumour that it was more than just a kiss. He embellished the truth and in doing so shaped a reputation. And as Hannah reflected, “Everyone knows you can’t disprove a rumour.”
Hannah experienced the destructive force of rumour. She says,
“A rumour based on a kiss ruined a memory that I hoped would be special. A rumour based on a kiss started a reputation that other people believed in and reacted to. And sometimes a rumour based on a kiss has a snowball effect.”
Rumours can affect the reality of another human being. Rumours with negative content gain the most traction and inflict the most pain. Rumours develop a life of their own and, in some instances, gain credibility. It relies solely on the listener accepting and believing the story is true. Distorting the truth through the spreading of rumours can have disturbing consequences.
2. Disengage with the truth
The truth can be uncomfortable. Sometimes it can give rise to feelings of anger. Truth has the power to change people’s lives, to set them free. But often we are reluctant to embrace the truth. We fear the consequences.
Hannah’s favourite class at school was Peer Communications. It was her safe haven, a place where she didn’t feel threatened, accused or different. Her teacher, Mrs Bradley, invited discussion on a range of topics including bullies, drugs, self-image, relationships…
Suicide was a subject they never discussed in class. Hannah was sure more people than just her had thought about it. Hannah wrote an anonymous note to Mrs Bradley, in which she said,
“Suicide. It’s something I’ve been thinking about. Not too seriously, but I have been thinking about it.”
Mrs Bradley used the note to invite class discussion. The talk centred on what you could do for someone who was feeling suicidal. The answers favoured encouraging social connection or resolving specific issues. On the whole, the answers were superficial. Hannah thought they were sterile. There was some understanding of the issue but the responses were tinged with annoyance. Where were the concern, the compassion, and the commitment? What Hannah was hoping for was some sign that people cared, cared enough to show some empathy. She says,
“Maybe I wanted someone to point the finger at me and say, Hannah. Are you thinking about killing yourself? Please don’t do that, Hannah. Please.”
It is easy to disengage with the truth, to know something is true but avoid being tainted by it. We fear association believing that we might be stigmatised. Where are the people who are warring against suicide, who are willing to take up the fight to save lives?
3. Deny the truth
There are several ways of denying the truth. We can turn our back on it. We can hope that if we don’t give it any attention it will go away.
Hannah was done with introspection. She didn’t want to look inside herself anymore. She says,
“I stopped writing in my notebook when I stopped wanting to know myself anymore. If you hear a song that makes you cry and you don’t want to cry anymore you don’t listen to that song anymore. But you can’t get away from yourself. You can’t decide not to see yourself anymore. You can’t decide to turn off the noise in your head.”
And then we can become a barrier to the truth. We can take it upon ourselves to shield others from the truth, to build walls around the truth. Our motivation is perplexing. Is it insecurity, or anxiety, or jealousy, or prejudice that wants to conceal or suppress the truth?
During Peer Communications Mrs Bradley prompted students to write words or encouragement for each other and drop the notes in a bag with the student’s name. Hannah was hurt and confused as her bag was always empty. Hannah discovered that it was Zach, a boy she may have embarrassed in front of his friends, who was taking the notes. It was petty. It was pathetic. It was personal.
Hannah’s response to Zach is also a powerful commentary on our pettiness and selfishness. She says,
“I hope you understand. My world was collapsing. I needed those notes. I needed any hope those notes might have offered. You took that hope away. You decided I didn’t deserve to have it… You stole my paper bag notes of encouragement.”