Written by: Michael Reed, MA LMHC Family Counseling Associates of Andover
Netflix recently released the second season of 13 Reasons Why, a series which became a bit of a cult phenomenon with teenagers last year when it was first released. The original story was set in the aftermath of the suicide of a high school girl named Hannah, who left a series of recordings she had made talking about the 13 people who led her to ultimately take her own life. Each person represented a specific reason for her death, and she made it clear how each had wronged her in their own way. After its release, there was a great deal of criticism over how the show depicted suicide: first of all, because it was portrayed as giving power to a teenage girl through her death, with her suicide becoming a vehicle for others to finally understand her pain. Secondly, there was criticism for how graphically her suicide was depicted. Both of these issues go against most training on suicide prevention and there were concerns that it sent an unhealthy message to teens who may be struggling or may be triggered by graphic depictions of death, self-harm or rape.
At the very start of 13 Reasons Why, Season 2, there is a sliver of hope that the producers of the show had taken this criticism to heart and might be changing their tone. Rather than the generic warning about graphic content appearing on the screen, the episode starts with a more personal public service announcement from several of the show’s stars, warning of the specific graphic things that will be depicted, advising those who are struggling to perhaps avoid watching, and letting viewers know that mental health resources are available on their website.
This seems to be a promising start, but throughout the entirety of the second season it never materializes into anything more than lip service to the concerns that had been raised. Many of the same problems that plagued 13 Reasons Why in its first season remain unchanged. I will highlight several that stood out as the most problematic and that may be of greatest concern to parents.
Mental Health Resources
One of the main charges against 13 Reasons Why, Season 1, was its failure to portray mental health resources as being a healthy and viable option for those who are struggling. There is virtually no discussion of mental health, therapy or of medication at any point during the first season, which is striking for a show whose primary story arch focuses on a teenager’s suicide. The only representative of mental health in the first season is the high school counselor, whose poor advice is coupled with cynicism and a failure to engage when he sees someone struggling. He tells Hannah, who has just been the victim of a rape and who is making vague comments about death to effectively “get over it.” In the wake of her death, he tears out the page from his day planner that shows that he ever had a meeting with her so as to avoid potential legal blowback.
The school counselor does, in the second season, become more active and engaged, attempting to atone for his past missteps that he feels may have led in part to Hannah’s death. However, the way in which he chooses to engage is reckless and couched in terms of being a moral crusade. He corners and threatens a school bully whom he believes to be the one who raped Hannah. He visits another student’s house to chastise and challenge his absentee mother struggling with addiction, resulting in a fight with the mother’s drug dealer boyfriend and the counselor’s subsequent arrest. There are other examples of this strange vigilante approach to mental health, which results in the eventual loss of the counselor’s job. In the show, by engaging in this behavior, he earns back the respect of his wife and peers who see this as proof that he is “doing everything he can to help these kids.” Portraying mental health professionals as either deceitful and uncaring or as reckless and impulsive is a dangerous message to send to kids who need to know that there is someone they can talk to who can help guide them thoughtfully and knowledgeably through life’s challenges and give them support and help they need in the midst of their emotional pain.
The only brief discussion of someone seeking therapy in Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why is with Hannah’s grieving mother. The second season follows the lawsuit that her parents have brought against the school for creating a culture of bullying, which they believe led to Hannah’s death. While being cross-examined, Hannah’s mother is asked about her own mental health issues. She acknowledges that she struggles with anxiety and has sought therapy for herself in the past. When asked if she ever thought to seek out therapy for Hannah, her mother retorts that “she was only a child,” but eventually acknowledges, hesitantly, that perhaps she should have considered it. There is no clear statement about how therapy could have been helpful, that addressing her mental health issues could have been vital, but rather only a resignation that maybe it ought to have been considered. Again, this feels like poor messaging and at the very least a missed opportunity to be a clear voice of reason, if only retroactively.
The graphic content of 13 Reasons Why, Season 1, focused around two rapes and the Hannah’s suicide in the final episode. Viewers of Season 2 might initially feel that the concerns about the graphic nature of Season 1 were heard by the show’s producers and that they are in for a tamer experience. For most of the second season, it is tamer, although the rapes and Hannah’s suicide from Season 1 are discussed as part of the trial, and there are several scenes during which a high school student goes through withdrawal symptoms from heroin addiction and is later seen relapsing. Comparatively, however, Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why is tamer than Season 1, right up until the last episode. The content of the final episode is so shocking and graphic that many parents have called for Netflix to take down or cancel the show. In short, a male student who has been chronically bullied and was instrumental in bringing charges against the football player accused of rape, is violently assaulted by the friends of the athlete as retaliation for his court testimony. He is cornered in the school bathroom and badly beaten, with his head smashed first into the mirror, then against the sink. Bloodied and dazed, he is then held down over the toilet while someone tears his pants off and proceeds to rape him with the wooden handle of a mop. The mop handle is pulled away and seen to be covered in blood afterwards, and the boy is left crying and barely conscious.
This scene, which is violent and obscene, is hard to watch, and has been the focus of much criticism – and for good reason. While disturbing, the story does not end there; in the hours after his assault, the victim goes home, cleans himself up, and begins to arm himself, dressing in black and filling duffel bags with weapons and ammunition. His evolution into a school shooter had been hinted at previously, but this assault pushes him over the edge. On his way into the school, the image of an angry, stone-faced teenager, dressed in black and carrying an AR-15, one which has become all too familiar in today’s cultural climate, is quite arresting. In the end, his friends intervene and are able to stop him and convince him to abandon his plans. While the scene is troubling on several levels, perhaps most troubling are his friend’s instructions to the others not to call the police, but instead to call a friend off campus who arrives, tires squealing, as a get-away driver, taking the potential shooter to safety and away from the possibility of arrest. Again, 13 Reasons Why shows a situation in which someone is extremely troubled, but does not seek help from professionals or make responsible decisions.
Cause and Effect
Aside from the concerns already outlined about 13 Reasons Why, the biggest issue that I couldn’t stop thinking about while watching was the show’s overly simplistic cause-and-effect structure, which is repeated throughout both seasons. Peers bullied Hannah; then she was sexually assaulted; this caused her to take her own life. If only someone had been nicer to her, had been a better friend, she would not have been driven to that point. If the school had provided a safer climate, she would not have been driven to that point. Anyone could have stopped her and therefore everyone is culpable. A male peer was continually bullied and then sexually assaulted; he became a school shooter; his friend told him that life was worth living and that he shouldn’t do it; so he didn’t. According to 13 Reasons Why, what caused Hannah’s death? Her sexual assault? Bullying? The school’s inadequate response? There is too much finger pointing and asking whose fault it was as opposed to showing how she could have been helped.
I can appreciate the desire to delve into difficult topics which teenagers face, but to present this cause-and-effect dynamic sends a very poor message. It is, of course, entirely fine to encourage others to be more thoughtful, more kind, and more aware of what others are struggling with, but the message needs to be more than that. It needs to communicate that suicide is not inevitable, and that it is important to seek help and to focus on becoming emotionally healthy. It is important to send a message that responsible, knowledgeable people are able to help and that we should be proactive in seeking that out, rather than waiting and hoping that someone else will step in and prevent the inevitable.
After the first season of 13 Reasons Why was released, I advised parents to watch it with their teenagers, and to require a discussion afterwards. Although there are problematic elements in the first season, I didn’t want to discourage parents from what could be a viable starting point for having constructive conversations about difficult topics. Having seen Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why, I would advise parents and teens to skip it altogether if possible, as the show appears to have nothing new to say, and continues to present the same overly simplistic approach to dealing with some of the most challenging circumstances a teenager can face. It continues to show an absence of responsible adults: both the adults and the teenagers are frequently emotionally impulsive and short-sighted in their responses to the challenges they encounter. There is no guiding or corrective voice: nobody appears to challenge the two-dimensional understanding of emotional and mental health, of addiction, and of violence. Season 1 had potential to help create real dialogue between parents and teens despite its numerous problems. Season 2 seems to be interested only in rehashing old material and resorts to shock in lieu of substance. The only reason to watch the second season of 13 Reasons Why is so that you can be informed and be able to engage with your children if they want to watch it, so that you can be the one to offer the responsible, adult perspective that the show has continually failed to provide.