What You Need To Know About ‘13 Reasons Why‘
THIS POST CONTAINS CONTENT THAT MAY BE TRIGGERING FOR SUICIDE AND DEPRESSION
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also take a suicidal person to any Emergency Room to be treated immediately.
‘13 Reasons Why‘, a Netflix original series, came into my periphery a few weeks ago during a conversation with my teenage daughter. My daughter and I are very open in our conversations about life. We talk about everything from sex and abuse, bullying and drug use, to rape and suicide. I have no illusions about a perfect ideal of her teenage life. At the same time, my daughter regularly shields me from things she sees and experiences that she thinks would hurt me.
In our first conversation about ‘13 Reasons Why‘ (we’ve had many since) my daughter mentioned that she read the original book the series was based on years ago, and that it wasn’t terribly problematic for her. Her description about it was that it was a typical YA (young adult) book that addressed stuff teens regularly deal with, like sexual assault and suicide. It didn’t register as unique or worrisome for her. (But she reads a lot, so if you have a young child considering reading the book, read it first to see if it’s appropriate for your kid.)
My daughter didn’t want me to know anything about ’13 Reasons’ or its premise, even though the suicide conversation is one we have often. I consider myself very aware of my daughter’s day-to-day life as a teenager, and even I had no real knowledge about the worrisome content in ’13 Reasons Why’ until our conversation, and my subsequent research.
Here’s what you need to know:
The premise of the show is about a girl named Hannah who commits suicide, and leaves 13 audiotapes for each person she blames for her suicide. She details each person’s actions and how they led to her suicide.
Let me just stop right here and make one thing clear:
No one is responsible for a suicide, except for the person who commits it.
If you are someone who has been personally affected by a suicide, you. are. not. responsible, The End.
’13 Reasons Why’ is a revenge fantasy soap opera full of emotional manipulation. Having a character (Hannah) leave audiotapes to the people who hurt her is a flat-out dangerous idea to present to the hordes of teenagers binge-watching this show right now. The kids who hurt Hannah, regardless of how badly they hurt her, are not responsible for her death. Hannah is solely responsible. The series presents the idea that somehow, even after death, you can still be in control of the narrative of your life. And that in the end, you get the last word, even if you’re dead.
This is false.
It also feeds the (still malleable) brains of teens the notion that committing suicide isn’t the end. Hannah hanging around, even after her death, implies that she’s still a part of the story. Once someone commits suicide, their story is over. They don’t get to come back and orchestrate the outcome, and it’s irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
Manipulating teenagers, specifically around such a sensitive topic like suicide is reckless. Teenager’s brains still aren’t fully developed. Don’t get me wrong, my teen is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, but her brain doesn’t work as well as it will in five years. Or ten.
Teenage brain impulse control is the is the lowest it will ever be, and risk seeking behavior is the highest it will ever be. So by the time a teenage brain realizes the impulsive behavior they’re about to engage in isn’t a good idea, it’s already too late.
Offering up the idea of a revenge fantasy suicide, to a high-risk-for-suicide population like teens, who don’t yet have a fully developed frontal cortex for reason skills, is very dangerous.
Let me tell you a story about some teens in my community to highlight my point.
Yesterday my daughter wasn’t feeling well, so I let her stay home from school. I’m so grateful I did. In the early afternoon I got an email from her high school about the suicide of a girl at the school, along with her name. The email said the school had grief counselors available at the school all day, and that the administration was available to all students for their any needs they might have. The email also mentioned there were a lot of rumors circulating in the student body, and to please ask our children to refrain from spreading more. It ended with a plea for us as parents to talk to our children about suicide.
I was sick, just reading the email.
I wasn’t familiar with the name of the girl, so I asked my daughter if she had known her. She didn’t. I posted about it on Facebook, seeking some comfort from fellow parents who might offer consoling words. Pretty quickly a different story emerged in the comments. The actual story about the suicide is so weird and creepy, I nearly vomited when I read it.
If you don’t want to know more, please stop reading.
The story, as reported in a local paper, is that a fellow student at the high school, a boy, helped the girl commit suicide in the mountains near my home. And he filmed the entire thing. Reportedly so he could watch it later, to see if he wanted to follow through on his own suicide. He fled the scene after her death, and a hunter later found the girl’s body and reported it to authorities. The police were at the scene of the crime when the boy later returned to the scene, and arrested him on the spot. He’s just old enough to be convicted as an adult, for the murder of a child.
(I’m not on the inside of this situation, so it’s possible some of the details in the newspaper article aren’t completely accurate, but the main story seems to be holding up a few days later.)
I can’t even imagine what was going on in the minds of both children when they came up with this plan. I can’t even imagine the pain both sets of parents of these children are experiencing right now. I can’t even imagine. It’s horrifying enough to me, a member of the community who doesn’t even recognize these children’s names.
I have no idea if ’13 Reasons Why’ motivated either of these kid’s actions. But it’s possible. Every kid I know is obsessed with this show right now. I also know that when someone is personally affected by the suicide of someone close to them, suicide becomes a more viable option. So it makes sense to me that if a suicide is somewhat glorified, as it is, even in a glossy show talking about how awful suicide is, that it might cause a spate of copycat suicides.
A New York Times article about ’13 Reasons Why’ has this to say:
“Research has shown that “someone else’s death by suicide can reinforce a vulnerable person’s motivation to die by suicide,” said Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University.”
I worry that an entire series of back-to-back episodes of a fictional show, where Hannah’s revenge fantasy comes true, in very specific detail, is extremely dangerous to the teenagers watching. I worry that binge-watching a show about every single person who ever wronged Hannah, having to come to terms with their actions, seems real. But it isn’t. That’s not the way it works. Regardless, it portrays Hannah, a fictional character, as getting all the revenge she ever wanted from her peers. It’s manipulative, controlling, and cruel to portray the opportunity to destroy people’s lives from beyond the grave.
I worry about the fact that the show’s producers decided to change the way Hannah committed suicide in the book, (pill overdose) vs. how she committed suicide in the series, (graphic wrist cutting, with a razor borrowed from her parents, bleeding out in a bathtub). I worry that the change, probably made with ratings in mind, was triggering and harmful, and totally unnecessary. I worry about a lot of the changes made from the book to the series, most of which dangerously glamorize suicide.
I also worry (a lot) that the teens watching will see the adults in their lives as incompetent and uninterested in their lives as the adults portrayed in ’13 Reasons Why’. The parents, counselors, teachers, administrators, and professionals I know are the complete opposite of the bumbling adults in the series who “just don’t get it”. Every adult I’ve come across in my role as the parent of a teen has been phenomenal in dealing with the myriad of very complicated, and very sensitive issues affecting kids. It’s alarming to me that a show portending to portray suicide as a pressing issue, one warranting discussion with adults, intimates that those same adults are incapable of helping them.
This simply isn’t true.
I have yet to meet an adult who hasn’t taken suicidal ideation seriously when presented with a kid who’s struggling. Even when said kid doesn’t think the adult is paying attention to subtle verbal and physical cues.
Which brings me to my last huge concern: no one in the show ever mentions mental health. No one talks about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, A.D.H.D., or any number of other mental health disorders or stresses that can significantly contribute to suicide. There are copious resources available to those struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Especially in a high school setting, where adults are on high alert for kids who are struggling. The administration, counselors, and teachers at my daughter’s high school spend all their waking hours working to prevent the very scenario that played out over the weekend in my town.
99.9% of the parents I’ve ever known would do anything to keep their kids safe.
From risky sexual behavior.
From sexual assault.
It’s extremely harmful to portray it otherwise, especially in a show targeted at teens.
The only thing I’m happy about with the series is this: ’13 Reasons Why’ seems to be breaking the suicide conversation wide open across the country. The stigma and shame around mental health is staggering, even in 2017. And shame magnifies every problem, especially depression, anxiety, and suicide. So if kids, who’ve never considered having a conversation about suicide with friends, parents, or teachers, are having that conversation because of the show, and a life is saved because of it, that’s a good outcome.
We aren’t having a fraction of the conversations we need to be having about the risk of suicide. It’s so much more prevalent than you know.
If you’re a parent or adult in the life of a teen, it’s time to start having the first of many conversations about this. If you’re the parent or an adult in the life of a younger child, it’s also time to start age-appropriate conversations about mental health and suicide. If you think kids in elementary school aren’t talking about this, you’re wrong. I’ve had about 6 conversations with my twelve-year-old about ’13 Reasons Why’, and the recent suicide in our community, over just the last 24 hours. Apparently all the kids at his elementary school are talking about the show at recess.
There’s no perfect way to have this conversation. It will probably feel scary and awkward for everyone involved. That’s okay. The important thing is to start talking. Open the door. Let your kids lead the conversation once you start talking. Listen to what they’re worried about, and try not to take it personally. Don’t be reactive when they share sensitive information, or they’ll be less likely to share in the future. Be open to talking about anything, even the stuff that’s embarrassing for you to talk about. Let your kid know you’re there for them, and then show them you’re serious by following through with actions.
Get educated about the warning signs for mental illness, especially depression and anxiety. Everyone manifests differently, especially kids, so pay attention. Get professionals involved if you’re worried about anything. There are so many medications and therapists and treatments available, and so many people willing to help when you reach out.
Suicide is never, ever the answer.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Here is crisis Information for all the countries where Netflix is offered.
If you’re with someone who is talking about suicide, take them to the nearest Emergency Room. Emergency departments are equipped to handle immediate mental health crises.
// This post was written as a member of the Netflix Stream Team. Photos via IMDB. Advice, life experience, and personal stories are my own. I am not a mental health professional. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to a qualified mental health professional. //