There’s nothing easy about being a teen. From peer pressure to parental expectations to body shaming and insecurity, there are countless reasons why teens can get down, frustrated and even desperate at times.
If it’s been a while since you’ve been a teen, this might seem like new ground to you. But many parents are getting a crash course in teendom thanks to the new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” In the show, Hannah Baker is a 17-year-old high school student that completes suicide. She leaves behind recordings detailing the 13 reasons (which are actually people) responsible for her death.
The show does an excellent job of portraying what today’s teens face, from bullying to alcohol and drug use to PTSD, rape, self-harm, LGBTQ issues, depression, fitting in with peers and, obviously, suicide. But overall, there’s one big reason why the series does teens – and their parents – a tremendous disservice. Teens who watch the show (and spoiler alert: it’s teens who are watching the show) are left with no hope or direction on where to go if they feel at risk for suicide.
The fact that Hannah’s school counselor, teachers and even her loving parents were clueless about her suicide plans isn’t actually that unrealistic. I lived with my husband, Bill for years without understanding the depth of his depression and suicidal ideation. He bought into the stigma of mental illness, and denied that he had a problem with depression. Looking back, all the signs were there for me to see, but he was the great pretender when he needed to be. His silence cost him his life – and my lack of knowledge made me just spin in circles wondering what I could do.
Now, I have the knowledge and training to know what to do. But that’s not the case for teens watching “13 Reasons Why,” possibly considering Hannah’s decision to complete suicide a logical – or even glamorous – choice.
What I teach teens now is exactly what “13 Reasons Why” is lacking. I direct teens on what to do and where to go for help and I offer a strong message of hope. Too often, those closest to teens – their parents, teachers and counselors – do not have the education they need to intervene when a teen is depressed or suicidal. In my book R U OK?, I outline the warning signs and risk factors of depression and suicide. I point out the common myths surrounding suicide. I tear down the social stigma around mental illness and let teens know it’s okay – and necessary – to get help and treatment.
Recently, an 8-year-old boy in Cincinnati, Ohio completed suicide. Video footage of the boy shows he was beaten up in the school bathroom, after which his classmates stepped over him as he lay unconscious on the floor. Bullying is just another factor that leads to depression – and it can start at a very young age. Kids today don’t need 13 reasons to complete suicide. They need one good reason and zero people intervening to get them the help they need.
That help is exactly what “13 Reasons Why” lacks. Thanks to Netflix, these conversations may be happening more and more. Blaming teachers, parents or counselors isn’t going to help save our teens. What will help is providing teens with the resources and support they need when life inevitably gets tough. In discussing and educating about suicide, our schools need to be proactive rather than reactive, when, like in Hannah’s case, it’s too late.
What you can do
If your teens are watching “13 Reasons Why,” it’s time for a healthy conversation about suicide and depression. Talking about suicide is the first step to prevention; sometimes, the thoughts they leave unsaid are the most dangerous. Approach the topic as you would any other topic you discuss with your child: drugs, drinking, sex, bullying, etc.
The most important tip I give parents and teachers is to be direct. Start with questions like, “Do you talk about suicide at school or with friends? What do you think about it?” Ask about the underlying problems that may create thoughts of suicide for your child or their peers. Listen without overreacting. This keeps the door open for future conversations. Discuss some of the more common warning signs of suicide, many of which are depicted in “13 Reasons Why,” and which I’ve also outlined here:
Teen Suicide Warning Signs
Disinterest in favorite extracurricular activities
Withdrawing from family and friends
Changes in sleep patterns: sleeping too much or too little, changes in eating habits: overeating, binging, not eating
Neglecting personal appearance, not showering or having a messy appearance
Lack of concentration
Preoccupation with death
Risk-taking or self-destructive behavior
Frequent complaints of boredom
Does not respond as before to praise
Where to go for help
If you or your teen needs more information, resources or immediate help, please know it’s available! The following toll-free hotlines are available to help 24/7:
Teenline (This is a crisis hotline for teens to talk to other teens): 800-TLC-TEEN
AFSP American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: 800-273-TALK(8255)
Trevor Lifeline (Crisis line for LGBTQ youth): 866-488-7386
Bullying Hotline: 800-273-8255
National Eating Disorder Association: 800-931-2237
National Alcohol and Drug Abuse Hotline: 877-437-8422
C.S. Lewis said, “And no one ever told me about the laziness of grief.”
You’re tired. You’re exhausted. You can’t sleep. You can’t function. Your energy is gone. Your grief isn’t just in your head; it’s in your body, in your muscles and in your ability to keep going every day. Grief manifests itself in all of us differently, but most people suffering from grief experience disruption of their sleep habits. Whether you’re suffering from insomnia or simply find yourself tired all the time, your ability to heal is greatly impacted by sleep.
The link between sleep and griefYou’ve never been an insomniac before, but now you’re up all hours of the night. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not abnormal. A 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that sleep disturbances were common in bereavement – both for those widowed late in life as well as those suffering from “complicated grief” (also referred to as prolonged grief disorder or traumatic grief). Additionally, the study found that treating sleep disturbances can help people recover from their bereavement.
In other words, grief causes sleep problems, and those sleep problems in turn exacerbate the grief. Of course, we already know that a lack of sleep can also contribute to other problems, like weight gain, depression, a compromised immune system and accidents to name a few. Breaking the cycle can seem daunting, but it’s something I work on with all my clients. Sleep is crucial for healing – both emotionally and physically, and it’s important to remember that grief can be as physically debilitating as it is emotionally.
How to sleep when you’re grievingSleeping might seem like second nature – after all, you were born able to sleep. But as you grieve, sleeping can feel anything but natural, as your mind and emotions take over. That’s why it’s critical to “learn” again how to fall asleep and stay asleep. In my book, What I Wish I’d Known: Finding Your Way Through the Tunnel of Grief, I outline in detail how to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep while you’re grieving. My top tips include:
What worked for meIf you’re a regular reader of my blog, you already know my husband, Bill, completed suicide. After his death, I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep, and my life reflected it. I was in a fog, and even tiny decisions were impossible for me to make. Eventually I realized that getting stressed out about my sleep problems was just exacerbating the problem. I started to consciously shift my negative associations with sleep to positive thoughts. I also saw my doctor and realized I was deficient in magnesium and vitamin D. Magnesium is essential to good sleep, so I now take supplements to help.
Now, I only go to bed when I’m truly exhausted. And if I haven’t fallen asleep within 20 minutes I get up, read, meditate or speak thought anchors out loud. I don’t turn on the TV or look at my phone. My bed is my sanctuary and I associate it with positive thoughts
If you’re grieving, it might seem impossible to think you’ll ever function “normally” again – including getting regular, quality sleep. But sleep has never been more essential than in bereavement, when you need strength to heal.
Remember, as E. Joseph Lossman said, “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”
If you have ever lost a loved one, someone has probably explained to you that you’ll experience the five stages of grief—a model developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying. When my husband died by suicide after a long battle with clinical depression coupled with steroid abuse and prescription drugs, my well-intentioned friends said I would feel denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally, acceptance.
So you can imagine the frustration I felt when my grieving process didn’t seem to fit the model I was expecting. Years after her book, Kubler-Ross acknowledged that there are no stages — that grief is neither linear nor predictable — but the model is so well-known that it’s been impressed onto the minds of many. There are numerous elements that have an impact on how a person experiences and handles grief: spiritual belief, social support, emotional intelligence, personal history, and much more. Simply put, no two individuals grieve the same way.
I can vouch that the grieving process isn’t made up of stages, but instead it’s comprised of periods of certain emotions that come and go without much rhyme or reason. They come around enough to remind you of your loss, but the intensity and duration often lessen in time.
I can’t tell you when exactly the deep-seated grief lessened dramatically for me. However, it wasn’t as if I worked through five stages, graduated from the school of grief, and was free from heartache forever. I spent a great deal of time facing my grief, and I still do feel sorrow, but I own my life again.
Just last week I went for a morning run, and passed a man who looked exactly like my husband. The resemblance was so uncanny I couldn’t help but stop and stare.
He asked if I was OK, and I stuttered,
“You look just like my husband.”
I forced myself to look away and continued running, but instead of bursting into sobs as I would have a few years ago, I felt a mixture of emotions: sadness but also pleasure remembering what my husband looked like in the flesh. I was able to enjoy the rest of my run.
Since my husband’s death, I’ve completed the pain associated with the loss, done the work of my grief recovery, and said my goodbyes—but I accept that the roller coaster of the following emotions will always continue:
Disbelief. I’ve never been in denial about my husband’s suicide, but there are still some mornings I wake up alarmed that he’s really gone. But those next few minutes of sadness pass, and I’m able to shake it off and start my day.
Devastated and overwhelmed. Initially I was crushed having to go on without him, but I’ve proven to myself that I can move forward. The hard part comes when I realize he’s not around to celebrate accomplishments with me; then I’m momentarily hit by waves of sorrow, but I’m thankful they’re just momentary.
Guilt. I felt wholly responsible for not getting my husband the right help that he needed to overcome his mental illness. Although now I understand that I could only do so much with what I knew then, I’ve become much more educated, but I’ll always regret that I wasn’t empowered with knowledge sooner.
Yearning. He was the most important person in my life, and I still miss him every day, but the yearning no longer holds me back from socializing, trying new things, and enjoying the life that I’ve had to build without him.
Fatigue. I experienced a low level of emotional and physical energy that wasn’t depression—it was more like borderline apathy. I had to muster all the strength I had just to complete simple tasks that previously wouldn’t have required any thought. (Who knew showering could be so exhausting?) Even now there are a handful of days a year when I feel lethargic and I know I am grieving—and that’s perfectly OK.
I still have moments of longing and sadness, but they’ve lost their power and come and go only briefly. I can now think of my husband and reminisce about the good times we had together with happy tears. I know I’ll never be the person I was before his death, but I’ve grown in ways I could never have imagined as a result of my grief, and I’m using these newfound lessons to help others. Grief for me became a gift and a teacher.
When I council people who have experienced a loss, I explain that if we try to define and simplify the grieving process in steps or stages, we’ll limit our expectations on dealing with our broken hearts. Our grief is as individual as our lives, and eventually, the pain will change and lessen, and a new normal will emerge.
by Kristi Hugstad
Each of us has attached ourselves to something or somebody, and when you lose that special thing or person, you grieve. Always. You can try to run from it all you want, but it will always find you and tackle you when you’re not looking. My blogs, along with my books, will give you the tools to help you learn to live with your new self as you journey through your grief.