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On 13 Reasons Why: Acknowledging those working in suicide prevention

Current Affairs, Katerina Kavalidou

On 13 Reasons Why: Acknowledging those working in suicide prevention

Photo by Elisa Riva. © 2017 Pixabay. Used with permission under the license of Creative Commons. Via Startup Stock Photos.

By Katerina Kavalidou 

No matter what you are going through, there is help out there; suicide is not the solution”

The above is an important message from Professor Rory O’Connor, an expert on suicide research and prevention, regarding the recent airing of 13 Reasons Why, a TV series about a teenage girl’s suicide. Reading this, I started thinking about one particular group of people working on suicide prevention: those who pick up the calls at suicide helplines.

Although I now approach issues relating to suicide as an academic researcher, I often draw on my past experiences as a psychologist and someone who worked on a 24/7 suicide helpline. Assessing the needs of clients with suicidal behaviours requires effective therapeutic techniques, sound counselling skills, and the ability to listen empathically to people’s pain. These skills are critically important when the phone rings and you get to listen to and support someone who, for a variety of reasons, feels hopeless, alone, and unable to communicate their unbearable pain to others. The empathic character of a worker in a suicide helpline though is often influenced by their own feelings and thoughts, and during a shift the fear of not effectively supporting a caller can be very distressing.

What is the relevance of this to the series 13 Reasons Why? The graphic suicide scene, which experts have correctly criticised and which goes against all media guidelines regarding dramatic portrayals of suicide triggered something in me that I hadn’t experienced before. Sometimes callers to crisis lines offer very vivid descriptions of a suicide method, the scenery around the caller, their pain, their past experiences. During these calls, everything around the helpline worker stops, almost disappears, and the only thing the helpline worker wants is to listen, and to reassure that they are not alone. When I started training as a helpline worker, a colleague told me that helplines are harder than face-to face-counselling because the clinician is unable to see the body language and facial expressions of the person in distress and must depend on just the sound of a voice in pain. When on a call, you automatically try to visualise everything: what the room or area looks like, how the person is sitting or standing, what they are looking at while talking to you… The graphic scene of the main protagonist, Hannah’s, suicide took me back to a call where the caller was in a similar environment and although what I visualised in that call was imaginary, I found myself having a flashback and “watching” it again. Debriefing after calls like that, where the suicidal behaviour of the caller escalates fast, is mandatory and takes those intense feelings away. Still, you carry those moments with you, and watching that scene brought me straight back to this particular call.

The scene of Hannah’s suicide made me think about how inappropriately the topic of suicide is presented in the series. This is not only a concern for survivors of suicide, or those affected by suicidal behaviours, but also for those working with this vulnerable population. The series consistently paints adult potential helpers as uninterested, indifferent and unmoved by Hannah’s emotional pain. This belies the reality of helpline workers, clinicians, and researchers’ significant emotional investment in supporting individuals experiencing suicidal crisis.

The makers of this series did not acknowledge the potential vulnerability of their audience, nor could they see how distressing and inappropriate it is for those who work with people in similar situations. Without taking away from the importance of protecting people who have been personally affected by suicidal behaviours and suicide, clinicians and researchers in suicide related positions also need to be acknowledged and supported. Above all, giving the wrong message that no one cares and that no proper help is out there is not only unhelpful but also unfair to those actively working on preventing suicide and being there for those in need. The most important message arising from the discussions around the series, is that there is help out there and many people truly care.


If you are in immediate need of support, Samaritans are there to listen 24/7: 116 123 or if you are in Scotland, you can also contact Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87

For support in other countries please check for crisis centres and helplines at http://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/

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