Oxford High School Students Take On “13 Reasons Why”
Starting a conversation about mental health and suicide is never easy—especially when it’s between a teenager and a parent or other adult. But with 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s hit series about a high school girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes explaining why she did it, those conversations are happening more frequently and more openly around the country. When Pamela Fine, Dean of Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan, watched the show, she wanted to do more than just talk about those topics—she wanted to really connect with her students and get them to think more positively.
“Kids were talking about the series during class and watching it during lunch—some teachers even overheard them saying they had more reasons to take their own life than the main character,” she says. As a counselor with had a student who committed suicide a few years ago, Pamela was concerned about the fact that many kids were watching the show without the guidance of an adult who could use it to start an open, honest conversation.
In her mind, the show missed an opportunity to show viewers all of the reasons Hannah, the main character, could have lived. That’s how she came up with the idea for “13 Reasons Why Not.”
The idea: Every day for 13 days, a recording would play at the beginning of the school day. It would feature someone sharing an experience they’ve had and, instead of laying blame, publicly praise a peer who helped them in a time of need. Everyone who heard about “13 Reasons Why Not” were excited, and soon 11 students and two teachers, including the principal Todd Dunckley, agreed to participate. “I asked if anyone was willing to go first, being clear that there was tremendous risk in being so open and transparent,” she says.
Riley Juntti, 18, was the first to raise her hand.
“Life always has opportunity waiting for you past darkness.”
“I had, in a sense, been in Hannah’s position in my life, so it was like watching myself unfold through a TV show,” Riley recalls. It troubled her that younger viewers who were less emotionally equipped to handle 13 Reasons’ subject matter were watching it. “The show didn’t include extensive warnings or mental health resources—it showed the devastation of suicide but it made it seem as if it was inevitable, as if there was no other option,” she says.
Riley has managed her depression and mental illness for seven years. “I sat in darkness, waiting for someone to notice or care,” she says. “Then I asked myself, ‘How is anyone else going to notice if I stay silent?’ I am just as responsible for my happiness as anyone else.” Her goal for participating in the program was to encourage vulnerability and create an environment for change. Her tape recounted her experience being mentally and physically abused by an ex-boyfriend and the impact an encouraging friend had on her. “If we can go from being in a culture where mental health is taboo to talk about in schools to having students know they are loved and worthy, that’s more than enough,” Riley says.
“I didn’t realize we’d reach as many people as we did.”
Dylan Koss, 18, was excited to participate too. “I don’t think it’s healthy for kids to think that their peers have power over how they feel about their life,” he says. Dylan does, however, understand all too well the necessity for people his age to have an unwavering support system. “As a young gay man, I would hear negative comments about my lifestyle,” he says. “I never heard anyone say publicly that it’s okay to be who you are.” This was the chance for Dylan to share his experience.
The feedback he received after taping his recording was nothing but positive. “Everyone who participated had at least one person we’ve never met before come up and tell us ‘thank you.’ I even gave a student my number to contact me if they ever needed support,” he says. After participating, Dylan felt a sense of relief. “I felt like nothing or no one could stop me,” he remembers. “I was empowered. The climate of the school was so positive and there was a true sense of unity.”
“Think about situations from different perspectives.”
Victoria Valvo, 18, hadn’t seen 13 Reasons Why, but hearing Dylan’s recording made her eager to take part in the program. She had been subjected to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a family member, which led to a period of time where she battled depression and suicidal feelings. “I always wanted to get better,” she says. “I wrote out my story and gave it to Ms. Fine. The next thing I knew I was recording my tape and it was playing over the intercom. My story is something most people refuse to talk about or ignore. I wanted to make sure that people experiencing a similar situation to the one I went through understood that there is a better and happier life ahead.”
Victoria uses self-awareness and understanding of others as a way to navigate through life’s circumstances. “I like to think about situations from different perspectives and remember that the way people act and treat you is a reflection of them not you,” she states. “I am not perfect at doing this and still have my moments of self-doubt, but I try my best to move on. I’ve found that if you are confident and put good out into the world, you will receive good back.”
Just the Beginning
On the 14th day, a group of departing seniors left one extra recording—this one encouraging underclassmen to continue what was started. “They encouraged students to be better than they were and take their relationships into their own hands,” Pamela says. The tape also called for students to submit their ideas on how to keep the momentum for the program going—something that was discussed in classrooms across the school.
That brainstorm led to a new after-school group called The Forum. “It’s an outlet for students to gather to talk about their issues—they do it without adult supervision for the first portion of the session, then I am able to join for the last 15 minutes to hear their thoughts and ideas,” Pamela explains. Oxford High is also creating its own suicide prevention app that provides resources for students in the event that they are experiencing negative thoughts, plus a weekly podcast that will feature a recording followed by a discussion about their story.
If you or a loved one are experiencing mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, or simply need a listening ear, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255).
Photo Credit: kaboompics