Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24. The CDC reports that approximately 14% of high school students seriously consider suicide and 6% actually attempt it. Chances are, if teenagers aren’t suffering from these dark thoughts themselves, they know someone who is.
Which is exactly why the new show, 13 Reasons Why has become such a hit. In it, classmates are left with clues about a teenage girl who has recently taken her life. Each episode tackles one of the 13 reasons she has decided to kill herself.
Although relatable to many young people, the show has been accused of normalizing and glorifying suicide. A group of students in Oxford High School in California, however, are taking the show’s concept and turning it around to reflect a more life-affirming message.
The Project is Called 13 Reasons Why Not. It was originated by the Dean of Oxford High School, Pam Fine, in memory of Megan Abbott, a freshman who took her own life four years ago. For 13 days in the month of May, a recording of a student will play over the morning announcements.
The teenagers spend the first few minutes talking about a difficult issue that they’ve struggled with. But, instead of attributing blame to someone, as in the show, the recordings conclude with a thank you to someone who has helped them overcome their struggle.
The project was kept a secret… so when senior Riley Juntti’s voice began hurling insults over the loudspeaker, many students were confused.
“Worthless. Self-centered. No morals. Easy. Grimy. Cake face. You would be better off dead. That’s just the start of what you would label me as every day for two years.”
Juntti went on to list all the ways that she was hurt by a fellow student. At the end of the recording, instead of naming the offending student, she concluded with, “This tape is for you Elise Godfrey. You saw me when no one else did and continued to listen, share and appreciate the small things with me. Thank you for your kindness I can not repay. You are one of my 13 reasons why not.”
Afterward, Juntti was showered with support and praise from her classmates, many whom had never spoken to her previously. One tweet read, “Riley Juntti is braver than anyone for doing what she did.”
She was pleasantly surprised by the response.
“Oxford has come together to create an environment this past week where talking about mental illness is socially acceptable. … I’ve helped people come forward with their struggles and that’s more than what I can ask for from this project.” Juntti said.
Opening up the door to talking about mental illness and emotional struggles has sparked some much-needed dialogue. There has been an outpouring of students who want to share their stories and be part of a positive change.
“It was a risk, and it’s paid off. … I’m incredibly thankful for the response,” Dean Fine said.
Although the project is only scheduled to last for 13 days, the ripple effect of openness and positivity that it has started is likely to make long-term changes to the school’s culture and perhaps even spark similar undertakings around the country.