By Robin Stein, LCSW
True confession… I binge-watched the entire Netflix series titled “13 Reasons Why!” My initial reaction was that it was a show that covered truisms that many adolescents face in today’s world (bullying, sexual assault, sexual harassment, isolation, drunk driving, parent-teen communication issues). The characters were well developed and, while often graphic and painful to watch, I thought it did a good job of addressing some pretty dicey subject matter. But after processing the series more with colleagues, I began to have concerns about some of the missed opportunities to more transparently shed light on the theme of mental illness; something that impacts one in five teens in our society today. While we occasionally see Hannah and Clay (two of the main characters), sitting alone in the lunchroom or apparently feeling invisible in classroom scenes, the only references to mental illness are within Clay’s family scenes, when mom identifies that perhaps he might want to return to therapy or re-start some medication; she’s concerned about him.
First, a little background on the series: “13 Reasons Why” (13RW) portrays a 17 year-old high school student named Hannah who creates 13 tapes for the 13 people whom she believes are responsible for her death by suicide. The show highlights conversations and issues that are difficult for us as a society to speak about and, hopefully, it increased awareness about some of the many challenges that our tweens and teens may face today.
The series also may have unintentionally romanticized teen suicide by making Hannah’s cassette tapes the “hot topic” around the high school. The tapes engage characters and viewers in a game of “guess who” as they make their rounds while the characters become obsessed with who’s on the tapes and what they might say. The tapes become enveloped in secrecy as the teens conceal their existence from parents and school staff. Clay, the main character listening to the tapes, spends the entire 13 episodes clinging to Hannah’s taped voice and attempting to rectify some of the alleged wrongs that she identifies along the way. It’s not until the final episode that Hannah is no longer simply “the dead girl” but an actual teen who becomes so distraught and hopeless that she takes her own life. Knowing Hannah simply as “the dead girl,” distances us from the final act of suicide and its’ lingering impact on those left behind. It’s important to recognize that suicide is NOT a common response to life’s challenges nor is it ever the fault of survivors of suicide. Most suicides are linked to untreated mental health issues, typically depression.
“13 Reasons Why” also depicts a cycle of silence, highlighting youth who seem to have no one in their lives with whom to share their pain or their experiences. Throughout the show, there are literally no examples of positive help-seeking behavior. Even after Hannah’s suicide, there are no scenes of youth reaching out to connect with their parents, school counselors or other positive adult role models to share their difficulty coping in the aftermath of her death. Instead of showing teens how to ask for help or making it clear that counseling and support is available, the series does a disservice in actually highlighting a number of unhelpful examples such as a counselor who responds to Hannah with no hope, empathy or resources. The scene is not appropriate or typical of how most counselors would respond. Firstly, Hannah’s attempt to share information that she had been sexually assaulted should have been met with compassion and empathy, along with a reassuring “how can I help?” Other questions that would be appropriate from a helping professional include, “are you safe now?” An assault survivor does not have to share the name of her perpetrator in order to get help and support. Indeed, following an assault, the first thing victims need is to be given control back in their lives; being encouraged to make whatever decisions they feel is right for them around medical exams, pressing charges, etc. Additionally, Hannah’s language about being suicidal would put most counselors on high alert, with red flags and alarms going off! A direct response to Hannah at that time should have been, “I am concerned about you. Are you thinking of killing yourself?” The follow up would have been calling Hannah’s parents and insisting that they immediately take her to an emergency room to be evaluated. None of that happened.
I’ve received numerous calls from and had many conversations with parents, social workers, community members and colleagues who are truly distressed about the series. They cite the show’s potential for unintended consequences, one of which is the potential for “contagion.” On occasion, following a youth’s suicide, other suicides occur within communities (schools, youth groups, peer groups) and the possibility of that occurring creates quite a bit of anxiety within the helping profession as well as the parent community.
Parents Questions such as: “What do I do if my 12 year old wants to watch this?” “How do I talk with my kids about this show?” “Are there certain youth who shouldn’t watch the series and, with the access to technology, how can I stop them?” “How do I respond to a parent of a client who is wondering what to do now that her daughter has viewed this?”
Let’s start with who should or shouldn’t watch 13RW: Anyone younger than high school age should definitely be watching with a parent or guardian if at all possible. Indeed, we would recommend that even for high school students, adult support in viewing the series or at least in facilitating a conversation about it is really vital. Adults can find numerous resources to help them prepare themselves for watching it with their child and then tips to follow up by googling 13RW. Be prepared! It is graphic and disturbing in many places. If your child has already viewed the series ask them if you could have a conversation about it – you’d like to know their thoughts and experiences. You’ve heard that it highlights some really important topics and you’re interested in learning more.
Selena Gomez was the Executive Producer of the series, collaborating with her mother. She says she hopes the series will help teens start a dialogue about important issues. "I just wanted it to come across in a way that kids would be frightened, but confused—in a way that they would talk about it because it's something that's happening all the time.” My sense is that she is referring to the extent to which issues such as cyber bullying, sexual assault and suicide have become so prevalent in our culture.
While many teens are resilient and able to differentiate between Hollywood and real life, ensuring that we engage in thoughtful conversations about the show is really critical. It’s an opportunity to help them process what they’ve seen, identify choices and potential consequences of behavior and reinforce the idea that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem; help is always available.
Concerned adults can also ask youth if they have concerns about any of their friends who might be vulnerable and create some strategies together for reaching out for help. 13RW depicted a number of scenes where teenagers witnessed bullying and assaults directed at their peers (bystanders), who did nothing to address the situations, such as speaking up or telling an adult who could have helped.
“13 Reasons Why” certainly gives us a birds eye view of what’s going on in the lives of today’s teens and it currently has a near “cult” following accompanied with a lot of hype. To that end, our community is rich with resources if you encounter someone who seems to be having difficulty around any of the issues that the series highlights.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255
Crisis text line: 741741 Text START
The Trevor Project: for LGBTQ youth