Instead of glorifying teen suicide, students at Oxford High want to end it
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has been widely criticized for the way it portrays suicide: as a cathartic mission to single out those who wronged you. Critics have said the show glorifies teen suicide and glosses over issues of mental health, which are factors in the vast majority of suicides.
And a group of students from Michigan’s Oxford High School are firing back at the show with their own answer: Throughout May, they’re having kids from the school share “13 reasons why not,” telling stories of the acts of kindness that helped them through tougher times. A story has played over the loudspeaker at the school each morning since May 1, and will continue until 13 stories have been shared.
Students involved with the project told The Washington Post that they took issue with how 13 Reasons Why only gave a voice to the teenage main character after her suicide. They wanted to show their classmates that they have a voice now.
“I think the show accurately depicted what happens in high school … the problem we had with the show is it made it seem like suicide was the only option and didn’t raise mental health awareness, and it didn’t give resources,” Riley Juntti, one of the students to share a recording, told the Post. “That was very troubling for us; we wanted to fix that with our project.”
On the first day, Juntti shared her story. She began her recording the same way as the main character in the Netflix series, saying, “Hey, it’s Riley. Riley Juntti. Don’t adjust your whatever device you’re hearing this on. It’s me, live and in stereo.”
She then described being in a relationship with someone who was abusive, both physically and emotionally. She tells about threats that she and her friends received, how she started to believe she was worthless as her friends left her, one by one. Then, she says the name of the one friend who “saw her when no one else did.”
“Thank you for your kindness I cannot repay,” she continues. “You are one of my 13 reasons why not.”
Students who have shared their stories say the response from other students has been friendly and warm. Kayla Manzella, who spoke on Day 4 about a teammate who was kind when everyone else on her volleyball team picked on her, said people in the halls offered her hugs and she received reassuring messages on Twitter. Alexa Alban, who shared on Day 5 that she has struggled with her weight and been mocked for it by other students, said she’s been approached by others who said they could relate to her story.
The project is a response to the Netflix series, but it’s also in memory of Megan Abbott, who was a freshman at the school when she committed suicide in 2013. Her sister, Morgan, is currently a junior and has been hearing all of the stories being shared.
“I think if Megan had something like this going on in school when she was there, we would have had more time with her,” Morgan told the local Oakland Press News.
Juntti says that since the project began, fewer students are tardy in the morning. The halls and classrooms are silent as people listen to the tapes. The response has been nothing but positive. And students who are struggling are talking more openly and asking for help.
“We’re setting a new standard for our school and a new environment. I think it sets a message that we have to start treating each other better,” Juntti told the Post. “If you have a problem, it’s okay to struggle with something and it’s okay to come forward with it.”
She added, “Once your community is affected by suicide, you can’t get that child back. We’re trying to make a project before that happens to us again.”