Thirteen Reasons Why: Teens and Suicide
“Why did you do it man, I thought you were stronger than that.” That was the Facebook post last week that made me realize that something very horrible had happened to a young man who had spent several years coming to some of my teen programs at a previous library position. A boy that had just graduated high school and was trying to find his way as a grown up in this world as a man. Slowly through a series of FB posts I realized what I feared was true: he had committed suicide.
Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among teens and young adults. Research by the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center indicates that 1 in 5 teens have thought about suicide. More than 1 in 12 teens actually attempt suicide. In addition:
“Teen girls and boys are both at risk for suicide. Teen girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but teenage boys are four to five times more likely to die by suicide. Over half of teen suicide deaths are inflicted by guns.” (from teendepression.org)
In an attempt to deal with my own emotions regarding this young man’s suicide, I bought and re-read a copy of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. I then donated my copy to my library because all of ours are lost, a testament perhaps to the power of this book.
Thirteen Reasons Why begins with a young man named Clay receiving a box of 13 audio tapes. You see, in the days before Hannah Baker committed suicide, she made 13 audio tapes explaining to 13 people why she took her life and the part that they played:
“I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.” – Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
Clay is instructed by Hannah’s now eerie voice to listen to the tapes completely and then pass them on to the next person mentioned on the tapes. Hannah assures them that there is a second copy of tapes and someone watching to make sure they all listen; if they fail to follow her instructions she will have them publicly released – which many of the 13 would not want.
“You can’t stop the future
You can’t rewind the past
The only way to learn the secret
…is to press play.” – Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
There is also a map that highlights different locations that Hannah wants the listeners to visit. The story takes place over the course of one night as Clay listens to the tapes and visits the places indicated on the map. In the course of this night Clay begins to understand who Hannah was, and wasn’t. He begins to understand how each little event, some of which he witnessed, added together to make a horrible experience for Hannah. And most importantly, Clay learns that the signs were there if they had simply paid attention; maybe someone could have helped her.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a beautiful but difficult story that reminds us all of the power of words. It is also the story of how hard it is to truly know a person. But most importantly, it is a reminder to us all about the difficulties of high school and the teenage years and the importance of approaching one another with kindness and grace. It shows us how quickly a rumor can spiral out of control and how difficult it can be to undo the damage.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a powerful book for discussion. There are a couple of places with discussion questions online: The Book-ers, 13reasonswhy.com, and Goodreads. You can also download a copy of the map at the book’s official website.
In the book itself there are some questions that author Jay Asher answers about writing this novel.
You can download and hear the Hannah Baker tapes at YouTube
As someone who works with teens, I encourage you to learn the warning signs of suicide. The book mentions change in appearance as a sign in addition to withdrawal and a change in mood. Most teens will display warning signs so it is important to be familiar with them.
If you see the warning signs in a teen, check with your library policy and director to find out how you should respond and who you may contact as most libraries have some policies in place regarding confidentiality laws. If you have a good relationships with your schools you may be able to put a bug in their ear for the school counselor to follow up on. If you are a school librarian this will be much easier for you to do.
For further reading, LibraryThing has a good list of teen fiction that deals with teen suicide.
And it is an unconventional resource, often not safe for teens. but PostSecret.com has a strong mission to help prevent suicide.
Since we are in the information business, let’s make sure teens have the information they need to get help, or help a friend, if they need it. Even though it has been more than a year since I have seen this young man that took his own life, it has left me reeling and it has left many of the teens I have served and loved devastated. I don’t want to see another teen life wasted only to become a senseless statistic.
“No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.” – Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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