THE NETFLIX SERIES, 13 REASONS WHY, AND WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’d like to share with you my thoughts on the wildly popular Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why.
About the Show
Season 1 – ’13 Reasons Why’
This show has captured the attention of youth all over the world and has created many discussions among teens, families and schools about teen issues like suicide prevention, mental health, bullying and more. The show has also raised many of red flags by mental health professionals, advocacy groups, and suicide prevention experts about whether the series presents risks to viewers because of how the show addresses some of the important and complicated issues youth face today.
The response to Season 1 was alarming and caused the producers and the executives at Netflix to make some changes, and they did. However, is it enough of a message for viewers struggling to reach out and ask for help when they’re triggered watching (binge watching) the show? In my professional and personal opinion, I don’t think so.
Season 2 – ’13 Reasons Why’
Season 2 has been released and many teens are going back to watch Season 1 again and then onto Season 2. I want to strongly encourage parents, educators, coaches, and all trusted adults to understand the severity of the show and the emotional stress it could take on our teens.
The show focuses on a high school student, Clay Jensen, and his friend Hannah Baker, who died by suicide after experiencing a series of painful events involving friends, leading to a downward spiral of her mental health and identity.
The show is very real, and in your face, as it takes an honest look at the issues our youth are facing today.
Season 2 picks up in the aftermath of Hannah’s death and the start of our characters’ complicated journey towards healing and recovery. Clay and his classmates uncover a secret surrounding Hannah’s death and conspire to cover it up.
In my professional opinion here are some points I’d like to offer:
- For viewers living with mental illness (depression or an anxiety disorder), at-risk, or vulnerable to suicide, sexual assault, bullying, etc., I strongly encourage families to make a decision about whether or not to watch, 13 Reasons Why because of the triggering impact it might have on vulnerable viewers. The story lines are upsetting and graphic and can result in a young person needing additional monitoring, support and/or treatment. I recommend using the show’s rating (TV-MA) as a resource of guidance about the intensity of the content.
- If your teens do watch the show, 13 Reasons Why, please make a strong effort to watch the show yourself and have open conversation with your teens about the show. Doing this you can easily monitor the impact the show has on your child. It also gives you an opportunity to have discussion after each episode and ensure that they are comfortable enough to continue watching. I’d also like to encourage you to watch the additional video resources that Netflix has now made available in which the actors and experts discuss several of the issues portrayed in the show.
- In the event you are not able to watch the show together, ask your teen about their thoughts, reactions and feelings about the show and the content. Check with them often because it can take days to process the content and they are likely having these discussions with their friends. This is another opportunity to let them know they can always come to you with questions, concerns or worries about themselves or any of their friends who might be triggered by the show’s content. Let them know you are there to listen and offer advise if they want it. Don’t judge. Validate their thoughts and emotions and listen.
- Make a point to reassure your teen that the show is fiction and that fiction and reality is not the same thing. Some might believe that what they have seen on television is or feels like reality. It is important that you help them understand what is and is not reality and that the outcomes from the series do not have to be their outcomes.
- Educate yourself on the resources that are available in your local community or school where help is available if needed. Know the local public health agencies, a mental health professional, school counselors, or a crisis hotline. You can always call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
The issues highlight in the series are sexual assault, suicide, gun violence, bullying, drugs and alcohol and more. It’s important for people to talk about how the show makes them feel and encourage more conversations among families and in schools.
While I am concerned about the show, I would like to add that what I do like is that the show is forcing us to talk and starting the conversation is long overdue.
Netflix has made available some resources for viewers. Please visit www.13ReasonsWhyToolKit.org.
If you or someone you know needs help immediately, please don’t hesitate to reach out for support:
- Crisis Text Line: text “Hello” to 741741
- The Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 800-273-TALK (8255)
- National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: call 800-656-4673
Schools and their Responsibilities
I believe our schools play a very big role in preventing teen suicides, and being aware of potential risk factors in their students’ lives is partly their responsibility.
Producers for the show say they hope the series can help those who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. However, the series, which many teenagers are binge watching without adult guidance and support, is raising concerns from suicide prevention experts about the potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide. The series graphically depicts a suicide death and addresses in wrenching detail a number of difficult topics, such a bullying, rape, drunk driving, and slut shaming. The series also highlights the consequences of teenagers witnessing assaults and bullying (i.e., bystanders) and not taking action to address the situation (e.g., not speaking out against the incident, not telling an adult about the incident).
I do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help. Hannah’s parents are also unaware of the events that lead to her suicide death.
While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between a TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital. Doing so presents an opportunity to help them process the issues addressed, consider the consequences of certain choices, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems and that help is available. This is particularly important for adolescents who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to suggestive images and story lines. Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.
Guidance for Educators
While I do not recommend that all students view this series, it can be appreciated as an opportunity to better understand young people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Children and youth who view this series will need supportive adults to process it. Take this opportunity to both prevent the risk of harm and identify ongoing social and behavior problems in the school community that may need to be addressed.
Help students articulate their perceptions when viewing controversial content, such as 13 Reasons Why. The difficult issues portrayed do occur in schools and communities, and it is important for adults to listen, take adolescents’ concerns seriously, and be willing to offer to help.
Reinforce that school-employed mental health professionals are available to help. Emphasize that the behavior of the second counselor in the series is understood by virtually all school-employed mental health professionals as inappropriate. It is important that all school-employed mental health professionals receive training in suicide risk assessment.
Make sure parents, teachers, and students are aware of suicide risk warning signs. Always take warning signs seriously, and never promise to keep them secret. Establish a confidential reporting mechanism for students. Common signs include:
- Suicide threats, both direct (“I am going to kill myself.” “I need life to stop.”) and indirect (“I need it to stop.” “I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up.”). Threats can be verbal or written, and they are often found in online postings.
- Giving away prized possessions.
- Preoccupation with death in conversation, writing, drawing, and social media.
- Changes in behavior, appearance/hygiene, thoughts, and/or feelings. This can include someone who is typically sad who suddenly becomes extremely happy.
- Emotional distress
Students who feel suicidal are not likely to seek help directly; however, parents, school personnel, and peers can recognize the warning signs and take immediate action to keep the child safe. When a student gives signs that they may be considering suicide, take the following actions:
- Remain calm, be nonjudgmental, and listen. Strive to understand the intolerable emotional pain that has resulted in suicidal thoughts.
- Avoid statements that might be perceived as minimizing the student’s emotional pain (e.g., “You need to move on.” or “You should get over it.”).
- Ask the student directly if they are thinking about suicide (i.e., “Are you thinking of suicide?”).
- Focus on your concern for their well-being and avoid being accusatory.
- Reassure the student that there is help and they will not feel like this forever.
- Provide constant supervision. Do not leave the student alone.
- Without putting yourself in danger, remove means for self-harm, including any weapons the person might find.
- Get help. Never agree to keep a student’s suicidal thoughts a secret. Instead, school staff should take the student to a school-employed mental health professional. Parents should seek help from school or community mental health resources. Students should tell an appropriate care-giving adult, such as a school psychologist, administrator, parent, or teacher.
School officials should determine how to handle memorials after a student has died. Promote memorials that benefit others (e.g., donations for a suicide prevention program) and activities that foster a sense of hope and encourage positive action. The memorial should not glorify, highlight, or accentuate the individual’s death. It may lead to imitative behaviors or a suicide contagion (Brock et al., 2016).
Reinforcing resiliency factors can lessen the potential of risk factors that lead to suicidal ideation and behaviors. Once a child or adolescent is considered at risk, schools, families, and friends should work to build these factors in and around the youth.
- Family support and cohesion, including good communication.
- Peer support and close social networks.
- School and community connectedness.
- Cultural or religious beliefs that discourage suicide and promote healthy living.
- Adaptive coping and problem-solving skills, including conflict resolution.
- General life satisfaction, good self-esteem, and a sense of purpose.
- Easy access to effective medical and mental health resources.
- Strive to ensure that all student spaces on campus are monitored and that the school environment is truly safe, supportive, and free of bullying.
If additional guidance is needed, ask for support from your building- or district-level crisis team. The team may be able to assist with addressing unique situations affecting your building.
Guidance for Families
- Ask your child if they have heard or seen the series, 13 Reasons Why. While I don’t encourage our children to be watching the show, do tell them you’d like to watch the show with them, and use this as a time to connect and discuss their thoughts. If you make the decision they can watch the show, it is best you watch the show together.
- If they exhibit any of the warning signs above, don’t be afraid to ask if they have thought about suicide or if someone is hurting them. Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk or plant the idea. On the contrary, it creates the opportunity to offer help.
- Ask your child if they think any of their friends or classmates exhibit warning signs. Talk with them about how to seek help for their friend or classmate. Guide them on how to respond when they see or hear any of the warning signs.
- Listen to your children’s comments without judgment. Doing so requires that you fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said. Put your own agenda aside.
- Get help from a school-employed or community-based mental health professional if you are concerned for your child’s safety or the safety of one of their peers.
A Message for Students
- Suicide is never a solution. It’s a permanent action to a temporary situation. There is help. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or know someone who is, talk to a trusted adult, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text “START” to 741741.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your friends about how they feel and let them know you care about them.
- Be an “upstander” and take actions to reduce bullying and increase positive connections among others. Report concerns.
- Never promise to keep secret behaviors that represent a danger toward another person.
- Suicide is preventable. People considering suicide typically say something or do something that is a warning sign. Always take warning signs seriously and know the warning signs.
- Suicide threats, both direct (“I am going to kill myself.”) and indirect (“I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up.”). Can be verbal, written, or posted online.
- Suicide notes and planning, including online postings.
- Preoccupation with death in conversation, writing, drawing, and social media.
- Changes in behavior, appearance/hygiene, thoughts, and/or feelings.
- Emotional distress.
- Separate myths and facts.
- MYTH: Talking about suicide will make someone choose death by suicide who has never thought about it before. FACT: There is no evidence to suggest that talking about suicide plants the idea. Talking with your friend about how they feel and letting them know that you care about them is important. This is the first step in getting your friend help.
- MYTH: People who struggle with depression or other mental illness are just weak. FACT: Depression and other mental illnesses are serious health conditions and are treatable.
- MYTH: People who talk about suicide won’t really do it. FACT: People, particularly young people who are thinking about suicide, typically demonstrate warning signs. Always take these warning signs seriously.
- Never leave the person alone; seek out a trusted adult immediately. School-employed mental health professionals like your school psychologist are trusted sources of help.
- Work with other students and the adults in the school if you want to develop a memorial for someone who has died by suicide. Although decorating a student’s locker, creating a memorial social media page, or other similar activities are quick ways to remember the student who has died, they may influence others to imitate or have thoughts of wanting to die as well. It is recommended that schools develop memorial activities that encourage hope and promote positive outcomes for others (e.g., suicide prevention programs).
Tips for Watching the Show
- Pause the show and talk about an issue during any episode and all episodes. Talk about the scenes and help the viewers understand the content.
- Have discussions about what you’ve seen or experienced in your life and express the similarities. Show how in the show it is over-dramatized for impact and emphasis.
- Talk about what is missing in the real world, but not portrayed in the series. For example, how teachers and counselors act differently in the show, but in real life how do they behave differently?
- For the scenes you might feel uncomfortable watching don’t feel that you must. If there are scenes that are disturbing, this is a great place to pause and share that it’s OK to talk with someone – counselor, trusted adult, parents, friend. This is a great discussion piece.
- Always be willing to continue the conversation even after you are done with an episode. Parents or friends, be mindful that if you are concerned about a peer, listen for prompts from others that may indicate an interest in discussing the episode in greater detail. This show sparks conversation. Be willing to discuss. Example: “Oh, you’re watching the Series too? Tell me your thoughts?”
13 Reasons Talks about Difficult Topics
The topics the Show talks about are difficult but very important. Here are some tips for discussing these issues:
Important to discuss and have open communication about mental health.
Depression is the most common mental health conditions and causes symptoms that can interfere with one’s ability to study, work, sleep, eat and enjoy life.
Signs of depression include: Persistent sadness, decreased energy, overwhelming fatigue, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, loss of interest in hobbies or daily activities, difficulty concentrating, changes in sleeping patters, other atypical behavior for the person such as agitation, irritability or anger outbursts.
If you think you may be struggling with depression, seek help by asking a counselor, pediatrician, or mental health professional – If you are a teen, talk to a trusted adult to help you get the help you need right away.
Self-Harm and Suicide
Although the Show portrays a suicide that has already occurred, it’s important to know that suicide is known to be a tragic but often preventable health outcome. The majority of people who face challenges portrayed in 13 Reasons Why find ways to be resilient.
There’s no single cause for suicide. Suicide most often occurs when stressors and health issues meet to create an experience of hopelessness and /or despair.
Many times people avoid reaching out to someone who may be struggling with mental health issues, but just having a conversation can make all the difference in helping them to feel connected and supported. It’s very often the first step in getting the help that is needed and could be saving a life.
If you or someone you know is at-risk, thinking of suicide or self-harming, talk immediately to a trusted adult or reach out to the resources in the back of this book.
There is help and it’s OK to ask for HELP.
Bullying is repeated aggressive behavior in which one person in a position of power deliberately threatens, abuses or harms another person physically or emotionally.
In the Show, bullying is demonstrated in several forms – physical, verbal, social isolation.
Whatever the form of bullying it can be helped by speaking out to a trusted adult – parent, teacher, or school counselor.
You may think it is tattling but it is important to alert trusted adults about issues that may cause harm to oneself or to someone else.
Whether it is sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact it is wrong and this is a theme in several episodes of the Show.
This is an opportunity to have discussion about issues related to consent, ongoing harassment and peer pressure.
Some people have spoken out saying the Show has better helped them to recognize sexual assault.
Sexual Assault includes:
When a person does not or is unable to physically or mentally consent to sex and is threatened with force
When someone makes you feel obligated to say yes to a sexual activity by using guilt, pressure, drugs/alcohol or force
Unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and verbal or physical harassment of sexual nature occurring in the workplace or school setting. It can also occur in public in the form of catcalling, stalking, or groping
Know that consent to one sexual activity, such as kissing, doesn’t mean that someone has the right to touch you further in any way that makes you uncomfortable.
Starting the Conversation
The Show is meant to provoke important conversations and by watching the Show this gives you an opportunity to talk with people about issues that concern you. Whether you experience them yourself or you are worried that a friend or young person is struggling. If you are not quite sure how to start the conversation, here are some ideas:
- Do you think the characters in the show are behaving in ways that are similar to people in real life? Your friends or people you know? How so? How are they different?
- What do you think about what happened in this episode?
- Did any part of the Show make you think about how people who are struggling do not show the full picture of what they are dealing with to others? How so?
- What did you learn about “A Character’s” situation from this episode? What do you think about what happened?
- How does what you have seen change how you view some things that happen in real life?
- Do you think the adults did anything wrong? What could they have done better?
- What would you do if you knew a friend were considering suicide or had been sexually assaulted?
- Who would you go to if you were experiencing any of the situations these teens went through?
- Have you ever felt the way that Hannah, Clay or any of the other characters feel? Which ones?
- Have you ever wanted to tell someone about a sexual assault or bullying but worried that it was tattling?
- How do you know when to offer compassion/support/empathy and when to set clear boundaries?
My Thoughts on the Popular Netflix Show 13 Reasons Why
The show mixes teen suicide with revenge, which possibly sends a wrong message to impressionable teens.
Using revenge as motivation for suicide isn’t the message that is healthy or productive to send to young impressionable minds.
How they portray the suicide of Hannah isn’t typical on how suicide is seen in clinical practices.
How Hannah responded to the individuals in the show who caused her hard, or perceived harm, in a very vindictive way plays into a teen fantasy and promotes a misconception that suicidal behavior is selfish.
Someone considering suicide typically feels more hopeless and burdensome than vengeful and it would be hard to motivate the energy and planning necessary to craft that elaborate set of responses that she did.
Another story line that I and many other experts take issue with throughout the 13 episodes was Hannah’s narrative from beyond the grave, which sends the dangerous message that suicide is a way for someone who is suffering to gain popularity.
The show missed an opportunity to educate people about the most common risk factors of suicide as well as strategies that can help reduce teen suicide deaths.
All throughout the Show they missed opportunities to provide information to the viewers about help and resources. One example is how they attribute Hannah’s suicide to the actions of other people instead of exploring the main causes of suicide. The Show only shows interpersonal stressors between the students and there are a lot of other factors that lead to suicide that the show didn’t discuss.
Hannah certainly had trauma and that could contribute to her state of mind and suicidal ideations, but to say that sexual assault or bullying is a direct line to suicide is just wrong and sends a wrong message.
The series didn’t inform viewers about warning signs of suicide. For example, in the very first episode, the teachers says, ‘Let’s go over some warning signs for suicide,’ I remember and I was excited. Instead of going over the warning signs for suicide, what Netflix did is focus on Clay’s face – the sound fades our and he has a flashback. They could’ve spent 10 more seconds talking about the warning signs, but failed their audience in doing so.
The Show’s executives and producers are aware of how they failed their viewers and have taken note to add more informational content to Season 2.
The Show has a responsibility to encourage teens having suicidal thoughts or dealing with depression to ask for help and it didn’t. The only message I got was that if you reach our for help or support it could go wrong.
Mr. Porter, was Hannah’s school counselor and Hannah had attempted to talk to him about being bullied and sexually assaulted. She had even expressed suicidal thoughts. The response from Mr. Porter was concerning to many, and fear that his response could deter young people from seeking help. Mr. Porter is portrayed as an incompetent counselor who isn’t a very compassionate or emotionally available trusted adult to his students. He was clearly neglecting the ethical responsibilities of his profession, and doing things that would likely violate school policy and the law.
Keeping in mind that ’13 Reasons Why/ is a television drama – it still has to be concerning that any age person watching the show who is in a similar position that Hannah was in, and may be suicidal or have suicidal ideation, may now feel discouraged because of the show and shy away from talking a trusted adult.
This is another point that they hope to address in Season 2. Future episodes will answer these concerns.
How they covered Hannah’s suicide was a graphic dramatization and went against the guidelines for covering suicide in the media.
Based on conclusions drawn from 50 different studies and it’s intentions to minimize the risk of suicide contagions (aka “copycat suicide”), Hanna’s death was a three-minute long, graphic dramatization that went against the recommendations for covering suicide in media outlets.
Also, research was published by JAMA Internal Medicine showing a spike in Google queries for suicide related searches in the 19 days after the show’s release, including a 26 percent rise in searches for “how to commit suicide.” At the same time, suicide prevention-related searches also increased, including a 21 percent surge for the search phrase “suicide hotline number.” The researchers wrote that 13 Reasons Why has both increased suicide awareness while unintentionally increasing suicidal ideation.
This graphic, and sensationalizing portrayal is very dangerous. This is why media recommendations caution against glamorizing suicide or showing or stating the method in which the suicide happened.
Looking ahead, the Show’s experts have made promises to make resources more a part of the Show.
I believe that 13 Reasons Why did come with teachable moments and opened up conversations surrounding suicide and other difficult experiences that young people face that often get brushed aside.
A survey I heard about indicated that over half of teenage viewers spoke to their parents about the issues brought up by the Show. I’m not sure I believe half of the teenagers, but from a parent’s perspective, they were then able to get this window into what the world that their kids are living in may look like.
However, there isn’t evidence yet that increasing awareness of suicide through a graphic portrayal will lead to at-risk adolescents getting help. This is still quite concerning.
Please watch the show with our youth and be present in conversations and discussions valuing what they have to say. Listen. Validate. Be supportive and encouraging.