Emotional Intelligence Education Has a Role in Suicide Prevention

By Robin Stern, PhD, and Diana Divecha, PhD

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why sparked a national conversation around teen suicide and the high school social fabric in which it takes place. The 13-segment series recounts the drama — rejection, rumors, humiliation, threats, back stabbing, rape — that surrounds high school junior, Hannah, both leading up to, and after, her suicide. Hannah tells her own story through the audio tapes she mailed just prior to her death to all whom she held responsible for her decision.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Broadly, the show raises questions about the role of social media, parents, educators, and peers in suicide prevention, and it challenges us to think about teen social culture and how we engage with young people to face this serious — and rising — health risk.

As psychologists, moms and experts in emotional intelligence, we are deeply troubled. The graphic representation of suicide is overly sensational and provocative for a teen audience, and while it is important to raise awareness about adolescent mental health, the narrative contrivance 13 Reasons Why employs is about entertainment rather than a solid education: Its reliance on the “mystery” plot, seducing viewers into the story as it unfolds, oversimplifies the subject, and the blunt storyline that there is always “someone to blame” is misguided.

The show keeps us riveted on the problem but offers no solutions. Yet, we know from decades of research that emotions drive decisions, learning, creativity, relationships and health; and research supports the positive link between high emotional intelligence and decreased depression and anxiety and increased social connectedness, thereby making the strong case for explicit education in these skills.

Young teens ages 11–15 years old are especially vulnerable to stress, depression, and suicide contagion and ideation. Research shows that the brain changes created by puberty make teens especially emotional, and very sensitive to their social world. The limbic system, the area of the brain that is involved with processing emotions and social information, is more active now than in either childhood or adulthood. Teens process emotional input from their surroundings faster, and they are super sensitive to others’ reactions: Even a neutral expression can light up their emotion neural networks. And they are more sensitive to stress in adolescence than at other ages.

More distant regions of the brain connect up during adolescence that give rise to new kinds of thoughts and ideas, but they also lack perspective and experience. And the connectivity between the thinking and reasoning areas of the prefrontal cortex and the emotion regions is slow to develop — making it hard to think before they act. All of these changes offer, in the best case scenario, an exuberant acceleration into adulthood. But in a stressful and unsupportive environment, the changes can make teens more vulnerable to becoming derailed. Schools teach youth strategies and skills for mastering science and mathematics but not for harnessing and channeling the emotional power that is most predictive of their life success.

How an education in emotional intelligence can help:

Learning the specific skills of recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating emotions, the skills of emotional intelligence, will help students to:

Build an emotional foundation. Learning to recognize and name feelings when they occur helps to quiet them and prevents a feeling of being flooded by them, especially important for the negative ones. Being aware of our feelings and engaging with them on a regular basis helps us see that while feelings can sometimes offer important information, they are often ephemeral, they don’t last forever — something that’s easy to overlook when the going gets tough.

For example, if Hannah’s friend had managed and strategized around her own feelings of fear and shame of being “outed” as queer, it might have prevented the more dysfunctional response of throwing Hannah under the bus to try to save her own reputation. Or if Hannah had recognized her feelings of rejection and disappointment when her date failed to show up for Valentines Day, that they were distinct feelings, transitory and not defining, maybe her sense of self-worth could have been protected and she might have found a better strategy to communicate that it wasn’t okay.

Build awareness and strategies. Training in emotional skills helps to bring thoughts, feelings, and behaviors into balance. With practice, the “thinking brain” becomes strengthened enough to manage the powerful feelings pulsing from the “emotional brain,” especially important in times of crisis. Self-awareness can help us identify what brings us down and what picks us up, what we need to do to shift our mood to feel more positive. It is possible that had Hannah been able to identify her triggers and choose more effective strategies to manage her emotions when she was activated, she might have been able to prevent the flooding of feelings and hopelessness that eventually overcame her. Of course, there’s no absolute certainty in this, but while we are taught what to do in many kinds of emergencies, we have no training for those “feelings emergencies.” An emotion skills education can fill this in.

Build social connections and positive school climate.

“That’s a whole new level of lonely.” “It’s the kind of lonely…where you feel like you’ve got nothing and no one.” “Like if you are drowning, no one will throw you a line.” When you are that kind of lonely, you reach for anything.” — Hannah

Emotional intelligence training facilitates better relationships among people of all ages, including children and youth. When it is taught in schools, it creates warm feelings, trust, and a sense of closeness among students, and between students and adults, and it also reduces bullying and harassment. We know that feeling connected to family and friends — a sense of belonging — reduces suicide risk dramatically. Research shows that emotionally skilled people enjoy better and stronger connections to others, and that many of those skills can be successfully taught.

13 Reasons Why violates the well-established ethical standards for the media portrayal of teen suicide. Research shows that media depictions that are graphic and detailed, or that romanticize the act in melodramatic ways, are often followed by a spike in copycat attempts — a doubling on average. As the neuroscientist Frances Jensen says, teens are not just adults with fewer miles on them, they are developmentally unique.

To be sure, the series is sparking an important conversation about the evergreen topic (always popular on TV) of teen culture. The teens we’ve talked with seem to think the social life shown is pretty accurate, and many have watched the show, or talked about it, with their parents. For resilient teens, these conversations can be a healthy opportunity to discuss the realities of their lives — and the unrealities and dangers of the show. Teens have said in research for decades that they want close connections with their parents and they want to discuss important things that matter. However, the show was rife with those conversations gone wrong — sincere adults pressuring teens to open up but often lacking the skills to converse in a way that respected the teens’ realities. Emotional skills can help turn off one’s own alarm system to make room to truly listen to another person.

The causes of suicide can be complex, especially when severe mental illness is involved. Even in the most caring of settings, people can miss the signs. Yet we know that there is something in American culture that is creating a steady uptick in teen depression, anxiety, and suicidality. We also know that the evidence is accumulating about the centrality of emotions to people’s well-being and life success. And our research, along with that of other scientists, shows that many of these important emotion skills can be taught, and many school districts are beginning to do just that.

Often people who write about grief and loss say that you don’t “get over” someone or “move on” by putting the loss behind you, as much as you carry the person, or the memory of them, with you into your future. Hannah may have ironically helped us along in that regard. Because if there is any takeway from her story, it is that though we cannot control another person’s feelings, we may momentarily have the power to lift — or shatter — someone’s spirits. And we never know when that moment may be the crucial moment of caring they need.

Robin Stern, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Diana Divecha, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and Research Affiliate of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.