25 May Blue Whale Challenge, 13-Reasons Why and Depression
Trigger warning: Suicide and Depression
There have been a few things playing on my mind and at first, I was just going to keep it to myself, but after a chat with my best friend – I figured that perhaps it isn’t a bad idea using this platform to talk about what’s weighing on my heart.
Depression and suicide have always been sensitive topics for me. From the age of 16, I used every opportunity whether it be school projects or orals, to draw awareness and share the messaging of organizations that provided support to those who were struggling with depression and suicide. You see, at high-school, I was never the popular girl or the pretty girl – but I was the supportive friend, your biggest cheerleader, the one who always knew just what to say and when to say it. In many ways, I’m still that friend – and you know what, I’m darn grateful to have been equipped with that quality. But what many of my friends didn’t realize was that after writing the letters of encouragement to the girl who just needed a friend, and after hugging a stranger in the school halls because boy, they needed it… I’d go home and feel the same loneliness and dispair.
My teen years were riddled with “fucked upness” and while I try my hardest to focus on the good that came from it, it’s hard to ignore that I somehow didn’t turn out to be a statistic. In summary, I witnessed domestic violence, alcohol abuse, infidelity, I changed schools 10 times, went through school bullying, was stalked for 8-months, parental divorce twice, and watched as my parents lost everything; their business, home and the furniture that they had worked so hard to earn.
There are still some nights when my kid and husband go to bed, that I think back to certain events, and replay them over in my head, wondering how and why did that ever happen to me? I was a good kid; I got the 80s and 90s at school, I always did my homework, handed in my projects on time, I cleaned my room, made my bed, I never got grounded, went to bed on time, and did everything that was asked of me. But shitty things happen, things that are beyond our control. External forces and people happen.
For those of you, who have me as a friend on Facebook, you may have noticed that I’ve been very closely following the Blue Whale Challenge and sharing a lot of the media around the banning of 13 Reasons Why. What do these two separate events have in common? Teenage suicide and depression.
In case you don’t already know, Blue Whale is a social media game that was linked back to a Russian social media platform called Vkontakte. One person (the game master) started targeting vulnerable teens found in suicide and depression groups, similar to Facebook groups. He developed a game of 50-challenges that included waking up at odd hours, watching hours of horror movies, self-harming and eventually, at the end of it all, to win the game – you would commit suicide. There wasn’t just one case, there were numerous reports, there were videos, social media posts, there were news headlines and official statements, and as the body count grew – the more helpless I felt.
And then South Africa media reported that there was a chance the game was making its way to our shores. I understand what the media were trying to do: they were trying to warn parents. But all it did was got the attention of parents who asked questions like, but what parent doesn’t notice their kid waking up at 4 am to watch horror movies.
Understand that the game originates in Russia – the very place where women sell themselves on websites to marry strange men, in hopes of a better life in places like America. Russia is still a communist state and a lot of its people are living a less than desirable lifestyle. My husband’s uncle recently visited Russia and told us how the trains are so unreliable because the drivers start drinking early on in the day, and don’t care enough to stick to a schedule. Now, factor in that the game master was targeting teenagers who were already suicidal and depressed, and that his 50-challenges are a form of psychological conditioning. When you’re that depressed and seeking some hope, anything can seem appealing. By the time you get to the end of those challenges, you don’t stop and think but wait, why am I doing this? You are so past the point of gone, that you just do it.
Anyway, a few days after South Africa media reported about the Blue Whale Challenge, there was a news report saying that there was no substantial evidence to prove that the Blue Whale Challenge was, in fact, a real thing at all and that it was all done to bring awareness to teen suicide and depression. I read through hundreds of comments, of people saying how dumb anyone is to have believed the story at all, or how they always wait for an official statement from the government or police before sharing something so farfetched.
Here’s the thing though, it wasn’t farfetched. There were official statements, there were news reports. Not one, but many, and over a long period of time, too. It was very believable. And still is. There are 2 sorts of fake news; there’s the one where people share the story how the dad from Spur was killed by a member of the EFF in a drive-by to cause racial hysteria, and then there’s a news report, from credible news outlets that if shared, could save a life.
Okay, and now the topic of 13-Reasons Why, the most talked about show on Netflix. I watched the show only to form my own opinion of it, and if I’m being honest, I support schools banning talks of the show. But Megan, why? Don’t you support suicide and depression awareness?
Well, here is my problem. To all the parents writing about how you believe it’s good to be talking about suicide and depression, and how the show starts a healthy conversation, good. I’m not worried about your kids, because you had the good mind to watch the show first, or better yet, you watched it with your kid so that you could have those open discussions. I’m worried about the large percentage of kids who don’t have parents who screen what their kids are watching, who don’t know what their kids are doing on social media, who don’t have those conversations or who aren’t actually equipped with the knowledge or understanding of such a sensitive topic.
And I’m not saying that these are bad parents (or bad kids). I look at my dad who is raising my sister on his own and doing everything in his power to raise a decent human. He works weekdays and weekends and sees very little of my teenage sister. When he gets home, he cooks, cleans, baths, tries to watch some TV and then goes to bed, to do it all over again the next day. He doesn’t have what internet moms call, “a tribe” – it is him and my sister. That is all.
I was actually first drawn to watching 13 Reasons Why, when my 13-year old sister, who was visiting at the time, was texted to watch it, by one of her friends. I noticed her watching it on her laptop alone, and started doing some research on it, which prompted a conversation on suicide and depression. But, here’s the thing… She left the next morning and watched the rest of the show on her own. My sister has access to the internet, a smartphone, and laptop. My dad, who is working very hard to keep things together, doesn’t understand social media, or the risks that it holds. Honestly, guys, if it weren’t for my job relying on social media – I wouldn’t even know how to navigate the several platforms and sites out there. And then there’s also the realization that until recently, mental illness, depression, and suicide were not seen as real problems. My dad’s generation were raised to toughen up, and to get over it.
I am not worried about kids who have support systems, and parents who can be there to have those all important conversations. I’m talking about the kids who were like my husband and I.
Every day, I look at the scars of my husband’s attempt at suicide, which he later covered up with the song lyrics, “The mountains I have climbed, help me enjoy the fall.” It brings me such sadness, thinking of the 16-year old him who was struggling bi-polar and depression, with no one around him fully understanding what’s going on inside his head. Imagine being pushed so far, feeling so alone, that you’d much rather die? His attempt at suicide had a happy ending, it meant that he got admitted, where a psychiatrist finally diagnosed him and said, “you’re not broken – there are pills that can help balance your chemicals.” He still speaks of this as being the biggest relief that he has ever felt. I look at my kids and think, imagine he’d been successful – imagine I missed out on knowing all of this.
My problem with 13-Reasons Why is that the show provided no hope. Hannah’s parents weren’t aware of what their daughter was going through because they were worried about losing their family business – my parents watched helplessly as their marriage fell apart, my dad lost his business, he lost everything, and we had every piece of furniture ever owned, repossessed. Hannah’s parents didn’t notice her leaving the house, or coming home upset because they were working, or trying to keep life together – they were doing their best with the cards, they were dealt. These are things that we are all guilty of at some point or another. Hannah went to a school counselor, who had his own stuff going on, and didn’t bother to listen to her cries for help – I had that happen too. My school counselor didn’t provide support, instead, she told me that if I continued to go to her, she’d be forced to call child services. So, I stopped seeing her and at the end of the year, I changed schools yet again, because I didn’t want my school knowing what was really going on – I no longer trusted anyone.
There are a bunch of things that I related to, while watching the show and as each episode went on, I fell deeper into a depressive state – and the hopelessness became me. And THAT’s why I’m against promoting kids watching the show – the show does not provide any source to seek help, it does not show that there are people and places out there whose main mission is to help teens. And my biggest worry is that there are kids who are watching this show alone, who are going through the same challenges as Hannah, and are left with the same feelings that I had, and then they see the very graphic suicide and think, that’s the end of her struggles. Now, it’s all over for her, she’ll never have to worry about it again. Peace has found her. They see suicide as the escape.
Yes, let’s talk about mental illness, let’s bring awareness to suicide and depression. But let’s do so responsibly. Let’s realize that people who are suffering from depression, very often do not seek out our help because they don’t feel worthy, they don’t want to go through yet another rejection, or feel like an inconvenience to your day – so seeing your Facebook post that says, “my door is always open.” means very little. Instead, let’s watch over our friends, reach out, build each other up, and share the platforms and stories that DO provide support and hope to people who struggle with depression.
Most of all, be kinder. Be considerate of your words, understand that sometimes a person may actually be trying to reach out for help but doesn’t really know how to, without sounding needy. I have one rule in life. You can pray to any God, you can love whoever you want, you can vote for whichever party appeals to your values, you can do what you like with your recreational time but just don’t be an asshole. Simple.
If you are needing a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist or support group, call The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 011 234 4837 or 0800 20 50 26 and speak to a trained counselor who can assist you further.
You can also call the 24-hour CRISIS line on 0800 12 13 14. For a suicidal Emergency contact 0800 567 567.