Thirteen reasons why

The weekly Torah portions at this time of the year, from the Book of Deuteronomy, are all about making choices.

NETFLIX’S THIRTEEN Reasons Why.  (photo credit: NETFLIX)
(photo credit: NETFLIX)
Recently the child of someone I know committed suicide. It brings to four the number of families I am acquainted with whose children have killed themselves. This does not include adults, or children who have struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression.
Suicide is a silent killer. Silent because we are either ignorant of how prevalent the phenomenon is or deeply uncomfortable with the topic.
Last year, Netflix produced a controversial show loosely based on a book by Jay Asher called Thirteen Reasons Why in which the title character, Hannah Baker, commits suicide and leaves 13 cassettes detailing who is to blame. The show is graphic, brutal and difficult to watch. It includes a rape scene and the slitting of Hannah’s wrists.
While young people today are used to watching graphic sex and violence, there was concern nevertheless, that the show had gone too far in its realistic portrayal of the suicide and that this could lead to suicidal ideation and copycat suicides. The mere fact that its viewer ratings unofficially reached about 11 million viewers among its targeted demographic of young adults showed that it touched a deep cord.
Social media exploded when discussing the pros and cons of the show, with professionals largely decrying the producer’s irresponsibility, and young adults feeling that the show validated for many of them the emotional and mental pain and suffering they experience. It presented cyberbullying, date rape and the loss of a best friend as the reasons for the suicide, but it missed the mark by blaming it on external factors when it could have opened the possibility for a serious talk about the complexities of depression in particular and of mental illness in general to a huge audience.
Unfortunately, it did not create a real conversation around mental illness. It did not allow viewers to confront the uncomfortable truth that what frightens us about mental illness is the inability to logically understand the reasons why. We cannot follow the trajectory of the disease or see the breakdown of the body as with physical illnesses. We have an illusion that if it is in the mind, there should be a way to overcome anxiety, fear, sadness and emotional pain. It’s a matter of mind of matter.
The weekly Torah portions at this time of the year, from the Book of Deuteronomy, are all about making choices. What distinguishes man from other creatures is the ability to choose – choosing life and good and God and Torah. As the New Year approaches, we look back and reflect on our choices.
And so, when a person starves him or herself to death or jumps off a bridge we are at a loss. How can that be a choice? When it comes to death, we always want to understand what happened, so that we can distance and protect ourselves. Always at shiva, the question of what happened and how did she or he die reflects our deep desire to hope that if we can avoid certain behaviors or diets or situations, we will prevent ourselves from dying. When it comes to suicide we stand naked, stripped of any pretense of understanding. The inability to prevent the inexplicable renders us mute.
As World Mental Health Day (October 10) approaches, we need to ask ourselves what we can do to reach out to people among us suffering from depression and to support their families and loved ones.
We need to ask ourselves why we hesitate to get involved when other illnesses such as cancer move us to be supportive, caring and proactive.
The show is called Thirteen Reasons Why. But suicide is the definition of a life unfinished.
And we will never know the reasons and we will never know why.
The author is a member of the Beit Hillel organization, which will hold a conference “Pikuach Nefesh - Mental Disabilities, Halacha, and Integration in the Community” on Tuesday, September 12, in cooperation with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academic College and the Commission for the Equalization of People with Disabilities.