Working with children and adolescents has allowed me to keep my fingers on the pulse of what’s trending for youth in pop culture. So when a few of my adolescent clients started referencing the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, at the end of March, I felt compelled to watch it, so I could #1) have an understanding of what they were even talking about, but #2) engage in genuine and important discussions over the content. The need for the latter has been significant.
13 Reasons Why is a story about Hannah Baker. Hannah creates 13 cassette tapes prior to completing suicide. The series follows one of her classmates as he becomes the next recipient of the tapes. As he and the viewers learn the reasons behind Hannah’s choice to end her life, some very dark secrets begin to become uncovered. As each episode unfolds, more and more concerning issues began to surface for me. By the time it was over, I had some real clinical concerns.
The first concern I have involved the tapes. Making the tapes was Hannah’s way to continue to communicate with her classmates and seek justice for those who wronged her. Most adolescents who complete suicide don’t spend a great deal of time planning the act, so the time and effort spent in the creation of the tapes is not a realistic depiction. Also, the attention Hannah received after the fact was significant. This series placed a lot of focus on this attention and seemed to romanticize the act of revenge. Getting swept up in and rooting for justice for Hannah could very much lead to someone at risk over-identifying with her.
The guilt Hannah leaves her classmates feeling, even those who may have not even played a role in the trauma she experienced, is significant and my 2nd concern. Survivor guilt is a very real and common response to suicide, and it is highly likely that they were already experiencing this. The message of the lines, “We ALL killed Hannah Baker” and “None of you cared enough” places blame on the students left behind and this is very concerning and dangerous.
My 3rd concern is the fact that the series didn’t directly address the effects of trauma, mental health, nor did it depict Hannah seeking any kind of help or alternative solutions. Research tell us that nearly 90% of adolescents who complete suicide have some sort of mental health disorder; specifically a mood disorder (i.e. Depression or Bipolar). The series depicted Hannah as a teen who felt utterly hopeless. Following the series was a special episode titled Beyond the Reasons, and while the cast and creators did pull in experts to discuss teen suicide, mental health, and ways to seek support and help, the series itself was seriously lacking this information.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in children aged 10-14 and the third leading cause of death in individuals aged 15-34 (CDC, 2015). Being the second and third leading cause of death is concerning for these age groups, but it is important to consider that individuals within these age groups aren’t supposed to be dying at these ages. Suicide is actually more likely to happen to middle aged, white males. We know that most adolescents who experience bullying, cyber or otherwise, or any other life challenge don’t actually consider suicide because they are in fact reaching out. Suicide isn’t a common response, so the over-simplification of it as depicted in the series is my 4th concern.
My 5th concern lies with the adults depicted within the series. The parents of the teens seem completely clueless when it comes to communicating with their kids, and when they do discover that their teen is struggling, they seem to have no idea how to support him or her. The school staff depicted in 13 Reasons is just plain awful and not at all realistic, in my opinion. This depiction may pave the way for young viewers to overgeneralize staff approaches (or serious lack of) within the series to the real support staff within their own schools. Having worked in public education for the last 14 years, in a variety of schools, I can say that support staff (i.e. school psychologists, school social workers, school counselors) take signs and reports of students struggling, emotionally, VERY seriously. Behavior changes are noted and discussed, and close monitoring and communication with the home is included as an intervention.
Despite my concerns, I’m not telling anyone to not watch the series, but I think it’s viewing should be done responsibly and with caution. For younger viewers, parents should know that there is very strong language and profanity used as well as graphic scenes of rape. The scene portraying the suicide itself is very graphic as well, so this would not be considered a series for viewing with the whole family. Some adolescents may be able to differentiate between realistic portrayals and take this show for what it is, which is absolute fiction, but if parents have a teen or teens who could be considered at risk, I would recommend parents watch it with their teen(s), or get caught up on their own if it has already been viewed. There are many talking points throughout this series, and I feel strongly that engaging in some type of dialogue and discussion should take place regardless of maturity level of the adolescent. Most will need some help processing the content no matter what.
If you are a family member, an educator, or a friend of an at risk teen, below are additional resources on suicide and seeking help and support: