In 2013, a 15-year-old girl felt overwhelmed by the pain of depression, being bullied, and the stresses of school. During a regular school day, she walked out of her classes and took her own life.
No, this is not the plot of popular Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. This is the real life story of Megan Marie Abbott, whose suicide coupled with the response to the show inspired Oxford High School’s project “13 Reasons Why Not.”
Created by Dean Pamela Fine, the 13-day project involves a daily recording during morning announcements, featuring individual students revealing a painful problem they’re dealing with. Instead of placing blame on the person at the heart of the problem, the teen ends their recording by thanking a fellow classmate who has helped them through it.
What began as a short-term project has grown into a movement at the Michigan high school, with hundreds of stories pouring in and a newfound sense of community.
Abbott’s little sister Morgan, a junior at Oxford High, thinks the project has had a positive impact on the school where her sister often felt ostracized. “When I first heard about it, I thought it sounded really cool,” she tells Babble. “I felt that this project would get people to really listen and understand each other, because we all have our own struggle.”
Abbott’s mom Amy Hafeli is also happy to hear the school has decided to launch this initiative. While the faculty took some actions to honor her daughter in the years after her death, Hafeli feels this is the school’s biggest effort to date.
“One teacher who now works at the middle school would stand at the door and greet students. He called these his ‘Megan Minutes’,” she says. “Since then, this ‘13 Reasons Why Not’ project has been the best thing our students have done.”
Oxford High senior Riley Juntti decided to tell her story first. In addition to honoring Abbott, she knew the project may help many other kids going through painful situations. “Before, there was a culture in our school where it felt as if you couldn’t reach out a hand for help,” she tells Babble. “I knew the awful situations kids were going through and conversation was not happening.”
Juntti was terrified to share her story. Her recording, which The Washington Post shared earlier this week, is a heartbreaking tale of an abusive relationship filled with hateful words and violence that made her consider suicide. “No one knew my story before, not even my parents, and then to have the world know my story was a risk,” she tells Babble.
But as scared as she was to reveal everything to the student body, Juntti knew she had to speak up for the others who were secretly struggling. “I wanted to be the first person to go because I knew no matter what backlash I got, if I could help one person, the whole thing was worth it,” she says.
The risk of sharing her story paid off.
“Hearing my voice over 1,800 people was a healing process for me. It helped me to understand what I had been through, as well as move on from the situation … I’m eternally grateful,” she says.
While Juntti did not know Megan Abbott personally, she made sure to connect with the family after her death. The experience of witnessing their ongoing grief was humbling. “You can see the pain in her family’s eyes, even after four years,” she tells Babble.
Abbott’s suicide has left a forever imprint on her fellow student. Juntti never wants to see someone experience what Abbott did.
“Suicide is permanent, and you can never get that child back,” she says. “Seeing a family’s loss like the Abbott family has changed me forever. I never want to see someone else go through that.”
Juntti is also incredibly moved by the outpouring of “13 Reasons Why Not” stories from hundreds of kids at Oxford High, along with many students now regularly reporting bullying and abuse. She says:
“That is why we did this, and I hope that continues. We created an environment where it’s acceptable to talk about mental illness and personal struggles. I hope that culture lasts after we leave.”
She shares that due to the overwhelmingly positive response, the school will now help every student who has submitted a story discuss it with a fellow student, counselor, or adult. “We didn’t want anyone to go unnoticed or unheard,” Juntti tells Babble.
This project has truly inspired so many students at the school to create something that has helped heal a broken community.
And for anyone considering suicide, Abbott’s sister has an important message.
“I know you probably feel alone and that there is no one to turn to … and you still don’t feel like life is worth living, but it is. Don’t be afraid to get help. People will listen, and they will understand,” she says. “Maybe it won’t help right away, but over time, things will get better. Your life is worth living, even though you may not realize it yet.”
What a powerful and critical message — especially in a time where suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-34 year olds, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
And as jarring a truth as it is to face, our children often go to school for more hours than they are with their own families. Our educational communities need to be safe havens, and the more people who speak up and make positive changes to empower and support these teens, the better. Hopefully, other high schools will become inspired to follow in Oxford High’s footsteps.
Abbott’s death — and life — have been beautifully honored by the “13 Reasons Why Not” project. Her story and the project’s message encourage us all to remember we are not alone, and that if we hold on long enough, life gets better after hardship. For her family and the students who were impacted by her death, Abbott’s actions remind us to always seek out support in our darkest moments.