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My Turn: Unlike ‘13 Reasons Why,’ my daughter’s suicide at 14 is a true story

  • In 2008, Alexa Berman took her own life at age 14. Courtesy



For the Monitor
Sunday, May 07, 2017

We had our own 13 Reasons Why. The difference was that it was a very real event, not fictitious and sensationalized and should have had people concerned, awareness raised and conversations started – but it didn’t.

It occurred on Aug. 23, 2008. Alexa Berman, 14 years old, three days prior to beginning high school, took her life. Most people reading this probably don’t even know. She was a sweet, bright, creative, sensitive girl who was treated cruelly and ostracized by several girls who had formerly been close friends.

Alexa, like Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why, was a bit different, quirky, and was made fun of behind her back by many of her classmates. She didn’t fit into the “norm,” wasn’t a “cool kid,” didn’t get tons of phone calls or invited to many parties.

She was no shrinking violet either. She had strong opinions, was mature in many ways, and had no tolerance for gossip and small-minded people. She wanted the friendships that she had to be meaningful.

Reactions from teachers, administrators and parents of friends were of absolute shock. The personality Alexa showed the outside world was of an upbeat and happy young lady. None of them knew that Alexa actually suffered from depression.

One would think that there would have been an outcry after the loss of our beautiful daughter. Parents would want their kids to have support sessions and an opportunity to share their thoughts. Demands would be made for information to be given regarding depression and suicide, advice on signs to look for and what to do if a threat of suicide was made.

It was my husband and I who were asking for these things to be done – the survivors of suicide loss. It wasn’t going to help us, yet even in those dark, early days, we wanted to help everyone else.

The topic and even the word suicide was so taboo nine years ago that Alexa’s was silenced. Now nine years later, we have this fictitious TV series based on a book about a girl who takes her life in a gruesome fashion. She blames it on 13 people through audiotapes made prior to her suicide.

This Netflix series about bullying and suicide, in just four weeks, has garnered more attention, positive and negative, and has school districts frantically sending home warning notices to parents about its graphic content and suitability for all students, than Alexa’s case and others that have occurred since hers in the last nine years. It has been the correct thing to do. This series is not appropriate for a young audience or for vulnerable youth grappling with mental health issues.

You might be wondering if I have watched it. The answer is yes – even knowing it would be very difficult. It’s completely coincidental, but for the last year and a half, I had been developing a presentation and a website, called “She Mattered” on the very topics that 13 Reasons covers – bullying and suicide. I wanted to fill that void in a constructive, sensitive way. I use Alexa’s story to educate and raise awareness about bullying and its relationship to depression and suicide. I needed to see what my future audience was exposed to.

I am glad that the doors of communication have been opened on these extremely difficult, but vital topics. 13 Reasons must be viewed with a critical eye, and kids need to know that media experts sensationalize it. As an example, when addressing an audience, I don’t mention how Alexa took her life. It doesn’t add to the tragedy. She’s gone. It’s heartbreaking. Our family has to deal with it every day. In the book, Hannah dies from an overdose, not a horrific wrist slashing. Dramatic license was taken in the screen version for shock value.

Most importantly, kids need an opportunity to discuss these issues with adults. I hope to provide this opportunity using a real-life case as an educational tool that reveals the impact of bullying and suicide, but also provides alternatives, prevention strategies and hope.

(Debbie Zegas Berman, of Brookfield, Conn., is a mother, survivor of suicide loss and an educator. For more information, go to shemattered.com.)