Written by: Michael Reed MA, LMHC
As a therapist who has been working with adolescents and teenagers for the better part of the last ten years, a significant portion of my work has focused on issues which teens struggle with such as suicidal thoughts, cutting, anxiety and depression. So when the new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” was released, depicting the story of a teenage girl’s suicide, with middle and high school students flocking to it, I became curious and cautiously optimistic. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, it follows the story of a 17-year- old girl, named Hannah, who we learn has completed suicide. The story follows 13 tapes she recorded before she died, has now made public, outlining the individuals who had harmed her and how, leading up to and contributing to her decision to complete suicide.
Having watched the series in its entirety, I feel that the show does deserve credit for creating an opportunity for parents and teens to discuss hard topics such as rape, consent, and suicide, where there may not otherwise be an easy way to bring them up. I believe that it has very earnest intentions to make a positive difference, and to promote suicide awareness. For those reasons, I wanted to like this show. But I, and many other mental health professionals have serious concerns about the messages portrayed, which feel, ultimately, irresponsible and misguided. What follows are a few of my main concerns about the show in hopes that they will be helpful for parents trying to navigate this series with their children:
- Graphic content: I understand that there is a degree of realism that has to accompany something like this in order for it to resonate with teenagers. However, I and many others have strong objections to how graphically the two rape scenes in the story and the protagonist’s suicide are depicted. These scenes are explicit; the suicide scene, shows in great detail the bloody way in which she chooses to kill herself. For those who have struggled with thoughts of suicide, or for those who are already feeling desperate and struggling with intrusive thoughts or images of self-harm, this is a pretty raw portrayal of something that could be potentially damaging or triggering to someone who’s already vulnerable.
- Romance: I have heard several high school students over the years describe in detail a fairly romanticized fantasy of what would happen if they were to complete suicide – with one girl painting a mental image of candlelight vigils on the football field and all of her peers whom she felt underappreciated her in life finally realizing her pain and being validated through death. 13 Reasons Why has been described by some as a revenge fantasy – of a teenager seeking to inflict exposure, pain and embarrassment onto her tormenters after she is gone. In this narrative, death becomes a vehicle for her to seize power and control. That’s a very dangerous message for a young person who already feels that they have lost control in life.
- Blame: The premise of the show is that there are 13 reasons why she killed herself, each represented by a person who has wronged her in some way. Much of the work that I do with my clients is to work with them to manage and navigate their negative emotions, to find a sense of control over them through communication, coping skills and challenging the reality of their feelings, to seek out mental health resources and to take a proactive approach to self-care. This series focuses on those whom she blames, pivoting the focus away from the important discussion of mental health and wellness. This message of passively accepting suicide as something that others have led you to is a dangerous and misguided one.
- Mental Health: The topic of mental health is, unfortunately, barely mentioned. Her suicide is treated as a cause and effect: bullying took a healthy, well-adjusted teenager and progressively broke her spirits. Being raped pushed her over the edge. This does not allow room for discussions about depression and the aftermath of trauma or how to manage such things. A discussion about available resources if you’re feeling suicidal, a discussion about how these thoughts and feelings can be managed and how there is the possibility of health and happiness in the future needed to happen. Suicide in this case is made to feel inevitable, that circumstances sent her careening toward it against her will with no one and nothing able to stop her. That can’t be the message we allow vulnerable teens to leave with.
This show is being embraced wholeheartedly by a number of teenagers; it’s been the subject of concerned emails from parents and therapy sessions with teens. If your teenager wants to watch it, my suggestion would be to discuss with them your concerns beforehand, to watch it with them, so that you can experience and process it together and to make an agreement that if they watch it, they have to spend time discussing the episodes with you afterwards. The opportunity this show creates to cultivate discussion around difficult topics between parents and teenagers is not without merit, but I feel that despite its grander intentions, the show fails to show suicide, rape, and mental health being discussed in a responsible or appropriate context. Having a parent involved to help correct that narrative seems essential.