091017-blm-loc-1suicide-side

Adam Snell, an Illinois State University student and a suicide prevention volunteer with the Ending the Silence program, discusses issues that students face that can lead to thoughts of suicide during a discussion at Normal Community West High School on Sept. 6.

DAVID PROEBER, THE PANTAGRAPH

BLOOMINGTON — "13 Reasons Why" is an unenlightened way of depicting suicide, said a Stanford woman who lives with mental illness and attempted suicide nine years ago.

"It shows suicide as a glorification of revenge" against people who are mean to you, said Tosha Maaks, president of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Livingston/McLean Counties.

"It glorifies and glamorizes teen suicide," added Kimberly Klepec, a counselor at Integrity Counseling in Bloomington, adding that's a dangerous message for impressionable, impulsive teen viewers.

"It makes suicidal behavior into something that's cool," said Adam Snell, 20, of Normal, an Anchor native who was diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder in middle school and considered suicide when he was in high school.

"That's not a good message," said Snell, a psychology major at Illinois State University and a suicide prevention volunteer with Ending the Silence, a NAMI/Project Oz program for teens that focuses on mental illness and suicide. He has controlled his depression with therapy, studying, exercise and positive coping skills, he said.

"Instead of ending my life, I sought help and got better," he said. "I have my bad days like anyone, but I genuinely feel happy now."

Colleen O'Connor, who developed major depressive disorder in middle school and attempted suicide as a teen, said "'13 Reasons Why' shows suicide as a way to send a message." O'Connor is a prevention specialist with Project Oz and Ending the Silence and is a NAMI Livingston/McLean board member.

"It's a revenge story," said Kristina McDowell, a counselor at Ridgeview Junior-Senior High School in Colfax. "It glorifies suicide. Students are led to believe that, after their death, they can change people for the better."

O'Connor said, "It sends the message: 'If I die by suicide, everyone will feel sorry for the way they hurt me.'"

"That's not realistic," McDowell said. "Even if people do feel badly, you won't know that if you're dead."

"Some teens don't grasp the finality of death," said O'Connor.

When people die by suicide, often the reasons aren't clear.

"People will not necessarily know that they are partially responsible for this," McDowell said. "Their reactions would vary and may not include guilt."

"By hurting yourself, you won't 'show' anybody," Snell said. "You'll just be hurting yourself and people who care about you."

"13 Reasons Why" does not deal with mental illness, when mental illness plays a role in 90 percent of suicides, said Maaks, whose diagnoses include bipolar disorder.

"My biggest problem with the (television) show is it talks about suicide without talking about mental illness," O'Connor said. "They made it seem as if this character (in the show) was doing it (committing suicide) because this was a natural way to deal with a problem, not because she had a mental health issue."

"'13 Reasons Why' never addresses that there is mental illness out there, that help is available and recovery is possible," said Karen Zangerle, executive director of PATH (Providing Access To Help), the 24-hour crisis information and referral agency.

Another problem with the show is adults are depicted as not being confident or competent enough to help the teenager in the program who is considering suicide.

"'13 Reasons Why' shows counselors as being totally ineffectual," said Zangerle said. "It was totally bogus. Counselors would notify parents."

"Most adults — parents, guardians, school officials — are competent enough to get a teen the help that he or she needs," Maaks said. "We teach in Ending the Silence that if you go to one trusted adult and they don't help you, then go to your next trusted adult until someone listens."

"Some kids get the message (of '13 Reasons Why'). They want to be nice to people," McDowell said. "Others are struggling with it. If they already are having a hard time, watching the series by themselves brings about bad feelings. For kids with a history of self harm or suicide ideation, they are having those thoughts again."

The good news is there has been no appreciable difference in suicide calls to PATH and calls from young adults remain low, Zangerle said.

In McLean County, as Aug. 29, there were 12 confirmed suicides, including one by a person under age 20, said McLean County Coroner Kathy Davis. Those numbers are comparable to prior years.

"'13 Reasons Why' could have been a positive force if it portrayed recovery as a possibility," O'Connor said. "It doesn't. But recovery is possible and likely for almost everyone if they seek out treatment and support."

O'Connor and Klepec recommend that, if teens wish to watch the program, that they watch it with a parent or another trusted adult who then can discuss the show with them.

Zangerle said "I would tell someone hurting, 'I understand you are in a great deal of pain right now ... But the pain will end and we can help you. Many people feel pain for a while and then they go on with their lives. I want you to go on with your life because there is so much joy and happiness ahead of you. There is so much see and experience. Life has its ups and downs, but you have a future filled with challenges, fun and finding things like a career that you love and a family that loves you.'"

"I live in recovery," O'Connor said. "I still occasionally struggle, but I am able to use my experience to help other people. I have a lot of joy and purpose in my life."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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Health Editor

Health Editor for The Pantagraph.

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