Is ‘13 Reasons Why’ Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

Female high school student using smart phone

Is ‘13 Reasons Why’ Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

With the release of the second season of Netflix’s series 13 Reasons Why, I was reminded of just how painful high school can be and the critical importance of attending to mental health issues. In the series, Hannah Baker (the main character) attempts to navigate the inordinately delicate challenges of teenage social life. Rumors abound, friends betray her, students bully and get bullied. One entitled and obnoxious student rapes two other students with seeming immunity from consequence. The parents, teachers, and school administrators seem either clueless or unwilling to stand up to the perpetrators. As the series has generated a range of responses and questions, I felt compelled to offer some ideas for reflection and consideration that might add value to the conversation and help others.

Many of my therapist colleagues criticized the first season of 13 Reasons Why. Some of the criticisms I heard were that it might glamorize suicide, that it presented suicide as the only option without adequate reference to mental health resources, and that it could inspire suicidal behavior from viewers. While this article is not aimed at evaluating whether 13 Reasons Why is good or bad, I feel it is important to discuss these concerns and consider the potential value the series could bring to topics in great need of attention in our society.

Regarding the claim that the series glamorizes suicide, I find it excruciatingly painful to watch and anything but glamorous. I can watch a lot of graphic material, but I looked away when Hannah fatally cut her arms in the bathtub. Perhaps my colleagues felt that a series about a girl who creates recordings calling out her classmates as reasons she ended her life felt like too much of a tribute. Perhaps they felt it could inspire others to do the same and seek posthumous revenge on those who hurt them. When I watched, all I could think about was how accurately it captured the high school culture that I remembered from when I was a teenager. And how tragic it is that nothing seems to have changed.

Second, regarding the criticism that the series shows suicide as the only option, I’m not sure it’s that simple. I agree that, in the first season, the series could have offered more resources to viewers who are having thoughts of suicide. In the second season, I noticed the series addressed this by presenting disclaimers and information about finding resources. The more uncomfortable side to this point is that, unfortunately, the main character dies by suicide, which does, inevitably, paint suicide as an option. My hope is that we use the series as a springboard for collaborative discussion to make suicide a much less appealing and much less available option. Perhaps, in turn, we can encourage people to connect more with life-affirming options.

Third, while suicide contagion is a real worry, 13 Reasons Why has the potential to inspire meaningful communication that might not happen organically. Someone sharing their thoughts or plans about suicide is often a sign they have doubts. When the ensuing conversation is done sensitively and constructively, it can lead to hope, help, and healing. This does present quite a conundrum for those being confided in. It is difficult to know how much to talk about suicide in order to help someone and how much discussion might be too much. If we can steer conversations toward alternatives to suicide and the wide-ranging impact of suicide on loved ones and the community, perhaps that can keep the dialogue in more productive territory.

Adults often know little about their teenagers’ or students’ lives and are ineffective (or perhaps even enabling) when it comes to behavior such as bullying that might prompt someone to consider suicide. Many parents, teachers, and school administrators likely feel uncertain or helpless in these situations, not knowing what to do or say. This variable, combined with a teenage tendency to hide information from adults, can yield some major challenges. In 13 Reasons Why, we witness teenagers reaching out to adults for help, but their calls are unanswered. This is greatly disturbing and concerning. It could also serve as a wake-up call to all of us who may, someday, be called upon to help.

Personally, I identify with the struggles 13 Reasons Why depicts, including the feeling no one at school understands, listens, or helps. I was once a student who did not fit in. I felt misunderstood, tormented, ostracized, powerless, and ignored. When I had trouble, I shared my worries with teachers, who expressed concern about my well-being. While I know they cared and tried to help, and while my parents likewise cared and tried, nothing changed. I even sought help from my physician, who callously responded, “Why are you here? Go back to school.”

I continued to hate going to school, day after day, year after year. Somehow, I pressed on and got out. When I went to college far away, I finally found peers who were like me, who accepted and loved me. Today, I love my life. I’ve even connected with classmates from high school and surprisingly discovered some meaningful relationships. I never thought that was possible.

I am not a parent, teacher, or school administrator. I can only imagine the challenges inherent in these roles, and I feel great compassion and empathy for those in these positions. In my case, I believe everyone did the best they could. It was far from perfect, but we made it through. After a great deal of work on my feelings about my experience, I harbor no anger or resentment toward anyone. However, I would like to offer some suggestions to adults who have or work with children or teens to address issues such as bullying, sexual assault, and mental health.

  1. Listen! Do your best to put aside your own fears and anxiety and listen to what the child or teen is saying to you. Show compassion and empathy. You might need to help problem-solve, but do not rush to solving a problem without understanding it first.
  2. Pay attention to what isn’t being said. If you notice changes in behavior (withdrawing socially, a decline in academic performance, quitting a once-loved activity, giving away treasured possessions, changes in sleeping or eating habits, writings suggesting self-harm, etc.), ask gentle questions to determine what is going on in the young person’s life. These could be signs someone may be considering suicide.
  3. Do not underestimate the risk of suicide. People are often shocked to learn that even children under 10 years old have ended their own lives. The notion that a child is “too young” to die this way is not a valid excuse to ignore warning signs. While someone that young might not fully understand the concept of death, their concerns should be taken no less seriously.
  4. If you are concerned about how suicide is portrayed in something your child wants to view, see it first. 13 Reasons Why or other shows/media might not be appropriate for someone to watch when they are in significant distress or are sensitive to disturbing material. If your child or teen watches, talk with them about it. Try to use it as a conversation starter rather than letting it speak for itself or, worse, for you.
  5. If needed, seek professional help. And do not rely on the school or its counselors to provide that help. Every situation is different and deserves the dedicated time of a professional therapist who can help guide these difficult conversations and circumstances. Do not delay, especially if there is any sign of depression or self-harm. If you are unsure where to turn, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; it is free and confidential. If you are concerned about the cost of professional help, know there are no-cost and low-cost options.

For all the teenagers and young people who might read this, I feel your pain. While I cannot guarantee relief, as life is not a Disney movie, I do know there are people out there who see you, understand you, and love you. Please don’t give up. You are worthy and valuable. You do not need to be suicidal, in crisis, or in an extreme situation to seek support and get referrals to resources in your area.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ashley Curiel, PsyDtherapist in Beverly Hills, California