Responding to 13 Reasons Why

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There are times and trends in pop culture that lead me to worry, or wonder, or fear how it might impact my students. 13 Reasons Why is one of them. The series is already claimed to be the most watched that Netflix has ever produced. If you have not watched or heard about this series, it follows a high schooler who has received 13 cassette tapes made by a classmate before she died by suicide; the tapes explain her 13 reasons for killing herself, essentially uncovering dark secrets that caused her suicide.

13RW

Okay, I have to say that I did watch this series, even before I heard the rumblings on social media. The rumblings include everything from praise for the show for not shying away from difficult topics like bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, to criticism for romanticizing the act of suicide. The thing about this show is, it puts you on an emotional roller coaster from the very first episode, and leaves you shaken. It is graphic, often times uncomfortable, and still, keeps you wanting to watch until the very end. This is not a series that you can move on from immediately after finishing; the story line and images stick in your mind.

After seeing many conversations about the series on social media, I saw some parents writing in about allowing their children to watch the show to “prepare” them for middle and/or high school. AND THIS IS WHEN I KNEW I NEEDED TO PREPARE MYSELF TO RESPOND AS A SCHOOL COUNSELOR.

Over this past week, I have read articles, blogs, and editorials about responses to this series to get a pulse on the impact. Still, I didn’t feel prepared enough to address any concerns stemming from this series in my own school. Yes, I work at the elementary level, but I fear that there are upper elementary students binge watching this series and perhaps not even talking to their parents about it, because their parents might not even be aware they have watched it at all. This, THIS, is scary and unacceptable.

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar facilitated by several experts in the field of suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. Each of them brought their expertise to the topic of how educators in particular could and should respond to this series. Needless to say, there are a lot of concerns about how the sensitive topics are handled in the show.

Here are a few of the concerns:

  • This show is FICTION, though many people (children and adults alike) are taking the show as the reality for many high school students today.
  • The graphic depictions of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and suicide can be very triggering, especially for anyone who is or has struggled with any of these things.
  • Young people may over identify with the characters in this show, particularly the main protagonist, Hannah, who dies by suicide.
  • The show very much over-simplifies suicide. The majority of people who have suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or die by suicide, have an underlying mental illness that they need professional treatment for. This show does not mention mental illness, or specifically, depression, at all. Not even once.
  • The 13 tapes created by Hannah before her death romanticize the ability to speak to people “from the beyond.” This is completely unrealistic. The tapes would have taken a rational mind to create; Hannah was not thinking rationally near the end of her life. In fact, most people who die by suicide end up acting impulsively at the very end. Suicide notes are not common.
  • One theme through out the show is the blame and shame placed on Hannah’s classmates (and the School Counselor) for her suicide. At one point, a character in the show says, “We ALL killed Hannah Baker.” Suicide survivors already tend to feel guilt when someone they care about dies by suicide; this is a dangerous and hurtful message to send.
  • The other theme through out the show seems to be about how kindness can save lives. Sounds great, right? After all, we want our children to be kind. However, Hannah references in almost all of her tapes that if that person had just done one thing differently, she might not feel as badly as she does. In the last episode, Hannah says, “Some of you cared. None of you cared enough.” Kindness is not enough; suicidal ideation requires PROFESSIONAL help! Again, this is not mentioned AT ALL in this series. Let’s not let the message to our children be that if they had just been more kind to so-and-so, maybe they wouldn’t have killed themselves. Talk about guilt!
  • The adults in this series, yikes. None of them appear to know how to help when they see their children/students struggling, or they don’t have the time. This is also a very dangerous message. The School Counselor in the series, Mr. Porter, is cringe-worthy when it comes to his responses to Hannah in the last episode. He is dismissive, distracted, and unhelpful. We need our children to know that there ARE adults who will listen and who know how to help them.
  • There are little to no help-seeking behaviors shown in this series. Hannah appears to be helpless and hopeless. The series offers no alternatives to suicide as a means to deal with serious problems. (I have to add that there is a follow up to this series, Beyond the Reasons, showing the producers, cast, and mental health professionals discussing how to get help for these kinds of issues, though there is NOTHING about it in the actual show.)
  • Contagion. Experts in this field know that research shows that young people are more likely to attempt or die by suicide themselves after experiencing a suicide death of someone close to them (about 4 to 5 times more likely). You might say, “But this is just a show. They don’t really know Hannah.” And you would be right, except that there has already been an increase in young people who are attempting suicide in the same way depicted in the show. Contagion is real.
  • Finally, producers of this show claim to have consulted suicide experts and media portrayal experts. The truth is that they did not consult said experts until after the show was already completed.

Here are a few resources to prepare yourself for potentially hard conversations:

I am not saying we should not watch this show. What I am saying is if you live with or work with young people, you need to be prepared to process this material with them. If it leaves adults shaken and heartbroken, imagine how it leaves our children. Do NOT let them watch this without an adult to process with.

Hopefully this post will be found helpful for someone! And School Counselors, let’s continue to be the best listeners and problem solvers for our students that we can be! We are needed now more than ever.

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47 thoughts on “Responding to 13 Reasons Why

    • AMAZING POST!!! Perfectly sums up my thoughts, feelings and apprehensiveness regarding this series and how it relates to students.

  1. Wow, thank you for such a thought provoking article. I agree with you 100%, those of us workign with children need to be prepared to discuss these important issues that are glamorized in the series. I haven’t seen it yet but did read the book a few years ago and was surprised to see it in our elementary school’s library. Your article gives me a good starting place to begin a convesation with my students. Thank you again so much!

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, comments and suggestions. I just had a group of 5th graders telling me about the book and the show…I was shocked to say the least.

  3. ​Hi Kayla, I follow your blog and always appreciate your perspective. This particular post was so good for me to read. Many people have been telling me that I need to watch this series, both professionals and parents of children who have expressed suicide ideation. Your points are profound and after reading them, I’m not sure that I will watch the series. Thank you for having the courage to share! Tamra ​
    On Fri, Apr 21, 2017 at 7:43 AM, The School Counselor Kind wrote:
    > Kayla Marston posted: “There are times and trends in pop culture that lead > me to worry, or wonder, or fear how it might impact my students. 13 Reasons > Why is one of them. The series is already claimed to be the most > watched that Netflix has ever produced. If you have not watche” >

  4. I’ve read the book and watched the series with my 20 year old Peyton Inman. I agree that only high school age kids need or can watch it – I wouldn’t have recommend it for younger kids. However, watching it with my daughter was very enlightening. Her first words were, “I wish I had seen this at age 16/10th grade year”. Its so much more than about a girl who commits suicide. I think parents and their high school kids could benefit by watching it together.

    I see a lot of this everyday at the school I work at. It has topics we need to be discussing, not hiding. Better to be proactive, than reactive.

    Also not all suicide or thoughts of suicide are due to mental illness. My daughter thought it was the only way to stop being bullied cause the school officials, the parents of the bullies (not my child) or police could stop it.

    • Thanks for your insight, Valerie. I absolutely think the series can start good conversations as long as those conversations are actually happening with a grown up. And yes, not ALL suicidal ideation is based in mental illness; some can be due to wanting relief from a temporary problem that appears it will last forever (a common way of thinking for children and teens). It’s all about the processing!

  5. Thank you for this blog. The comments are interesting. I heard about this series for the first time yesterday, when a student I am working with told me that she is watching it. I will watch it so that I can understand what she is talking about. I am sure she is not the only student watching it.

  6. This is so true. I am an elementary and special ed teacher and someone who suffered from severe depression in high school and college. I still feel the effects of it though it is under control. Along with everything already stated in this article, i would like to add that this show gives people a picture of suicide and what follows. I am not going to lie, hannah bakers suicide was a huge trigger for me, I couldnt help but think, “Wow, that was easy I could do that and it would be all over. Quick and simple.” For a few weeks after I finished the show I kept thinking about that bathtub and quickly slicing my wrist and it all being done. My point is, I never went through with a suicide because I was unsure how it would go, fear of the unknown. Hanns suicide gave a clear picture of suicide and made it look fast and easy which is very dangerous. Someone on the edge who sees this show (which is very likely because they may see the previews of this show and relate to it so their desire to watch it is pretty high or even just listening to the hype for the show) will see that Hanah left the world in a comfortable place and died quickly after a small bit of pain (that some people suffering from depression already inflict pn themselves regularly-cutting wrists). I enjoyed the show but it is full of triggers and has no notable way to deal with them

    • Alexa, thanks for sharing your personal experience! Your words are what many of us fear – that for people who have struggled with suicidal ideation in prolonged and serious ways, lots about this show is very triggering. I hope you are taking care of yourself!!

    • Amy, School Counselors receive training in suicide prevention and crisis management. They absolutely know how to handle crises and start the process of getting someone the help they need.

      • Kayla, I realize you mean well but please realize you just dismissed someone’s opinion completely without any context. Making the assumption that all School Counselors know how to handle crises is naive. Being trained on something does not equal being an expert at it.
        For all you know the person you responded to has personally experienced this struggle of a counselor not knowing how to handle the situation, and you respond by dismissing their comment completely. That is extremely worrisome to me; your experiences do not equal the sum of the whole. Instead of minimizing her opinion maybe next time discuss the best options people have when the school counselors do fall short.

      • Hi Steve, not completely sure how my clarifying comment is being viewed as dismissive, thanks for the insight though. Because of the nature of my blog post, it was far more important to correct the same misconceptions about school counselors shown in the series than it was to address an anecdotal piece.

  7. I think you missed the mark. I am a child and adolescent psychiatric nurse. That being said. Yes there are those that are suicidal that have an underlying mental illness, but not all suicidal people do. I don’t think unless you have experienced bullying to the degree where it’s relentless and something you can’t get away from you can understand it. A child that is bullied is around bullying 8 hours a day and once one person starts with a rumor pretty much he whole school then partakes. You hear it in he halls, during class, in the bathroom. If you live in a small community. You don’t even get to escape getting talked about when you go to the grocery store. If you participate in sports you hear it there, on the bus. It is omnipresent and relentless. It completely sucks away all self esteem you have. The saddest part is it’s hard to tell your parents or school stuff because even if those kids are disciplined they likely won’t be expelled so then you would get it 10 fold upon there return. Even when you are at home in your safe haven, prank calls can ensue or you are simply consumed with worry about waking up and enduring it all again the next day. So no I don’t feel that everyone that thinks the only way to get away from all of this stress caused by everyone else is to get away from it permanently has an underlying mental illness. It’s simply inaccurate, but unless you have been on the receiving end of relentless bullying, it’s very difficult to understand. But it is a injustice to those who are experiencing the bullying to this degree that they feel that is the only option of escape to assume they all have an underlying mental illness, because they don’t. Then it takes extensive time, love compassion and work to return from what those bullies took from a person. I do feel you were accurate and on point about the counselor.

    • Thanks for your insight. I will just add that my post said the majority of people, not all. And if someone is bullied/harassed as severely as you describe, they may develop an anxiety disorder (like PTSD), or depression, both of which are mental illnesses.

  8. Hi Kayla, my name is Nick Watts. I live in Lubbock, TX (west Texas). I am your everyday amateur blogger but a blog I posted on “13 Reasons Why” this past Saturday night somehow struck a chord and has now been viewed over 53,000 times. One of the comments in a shared thread linked to your blog here. I thought your blog was outstanding. I hope you don’t mind, but I linked it to my blog. My wife (a public school teacher) and I have visited Maine once – it is a gorgeous state. Thank you for posting this blog. I’ve included a link to mine here. Blessings, Nick
    https://nickwattssoulfood.com/2017/04/23/netflixs-13-reasons-why-is-not-merely-dark-its-dangerous/

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  11. Thank you for taking the time to watch the show and put these important thoughts together! We will share them with our Tacky Box community and any one else who will listen. You are appreciated!

  12. I will share this with Public Policy makers, as well as content producers. I and our family including friends have been affected by this very topic. Now with Facebook, twitter and other Social Media influencing conduct; very alarming . Thanks for Sharing your insights.

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  14. Although I do understand the importance of recognizing mental illness, I found this post to be slightly offensive. You minimalize the strength and resilience of teens. By saying that they MUST watch it with a parent or guardian implies that every teen is weak and easily convinced by a TV show. Instead of totally prevent a younger generation from facing difficult issue like sexual assault, you shod encourage the discussion of how to end these issues. And I disagree with your analysis concerning the show and the so-called “romance” of suicide. The show itself is centered around a person who was destroys by suicide of someone that he loved. You see and pity a young man who’s life and mental health were demolished by the girl that he loved coming suicide. The entire show is a cautionary tale about not living about the horrible damage, guilt and hurt that is brought to the surface when someone commits suicide. The graphic depiction of suicide, and the aftermath is clearly a message from the creators of the show, that suicide should not and is not an option.

    • Lizzie, I highlighted the need for processing of the material with parents and/or other adults as a means to discuss the hard but important topics raised in the show. Everything about my training in suicide prevention and child and adolescent development tells me how this show captures suicide and the aftermath sends many potentially dangerous messages. Thus, my blog post. Thanks.

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  16. I found your blog post when googling 13 Reasons Why, having just watched the whole series. I thought it was an excellent drama, sound production values, excellent acting. It raised some important issues too with great discussion potential but was very concerned about whether it would come across as drama or truth to young people. Hence the googling.
    Thank you for this perspective from a counsellor viewpoint. I work with upper elementary students and teachers in a situation where there are no counsellors (not every school has a counsellor and particularly in elementary we often don’t, so the teacher bears the burden of all personal and social development including emotional issues, often without any specific training). I know from my classroom experiences that pre-adolescents often watch unsuitable television and process it differently, many times misunderstanding the point. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that many parents do not interact with their children’s viewing or even monitor it.
    I really agree with the perspective you outline on blame. I think it is important to educate young children and adolescents to take responsibility for their actions, to understand that they have impact and effect, and there are ways to do this without blame The tapes in 13 reasons why were at times extreme in the aspect of blame, understandable when you analyze the character’s state of mind, but I can imagine that the viewing will provoke a lot of different reactions not just suicide ideation, but also guilt for many, and in some cases possibly even self-aggrandization or megalomania or other due to over-identification with some of the other characters. I think the series offers an excellent discussion point between students and adults at age 16 or thereabouts. I worry about the impact on younger viewers, particularly those who are viewing alone.
    As a person who moved schools often, who was not a ‘cool’ kid, who had no natural social group and a tempestuous home life, I personally felt that Hannah’s reaction to some of her earlier experiences were overreactions, but the point is we are all different and will react in different ways, which is one of the points for discussion. Nobody can know the impact of their derogatory comments, so then why make them? Or as I often say in class, if you don’t’ have something good to say about a person or a situation, don’t say anything at all. Nobody knows what another person is experiencing, and nobody knows what the last straw will be for anyone. So why not focus on building a culture of kindness? Personally, I would like to see a movement in schools towards community building, where time is given to work on these aspects ‘fake it til you make it’ like having students comment on what they like or admire about each other, sharing their lives more too, building understanding. Zero tolerance for derogatory commentary, with (oh how we wish for funding) counselling and reflection time for those who make such.
    Lastly, back to my initial point. This is a drama! Simply listing all the experiences she had – moving schools, parents in professional/financial strife, being set up with a ‘friend’, being given a bad reputation, photographic shaming share, a stalker, a lesbian encounter, a near rape, an actual rape, a traffic accident/death cover up, a useless counsellor, a hapless but well-meaning teacher, unrequited love with a shy ‘good friend’…. analyse the plot and it becomes very unreal quite quickly. Not to downplay anybody’s personal experience, and once again, we are all different but, as I believe is pointed out in your original post, it is unlikely that anyone given all of these experiences would have the strength of mind and character to make those tapes. And if they did, where was their strength of character earlier in the plot? The time frame also raises questions, when did she make them, and deliver them? As the timing between her final experience and her suicide seems very short. It opens an opportunity for lit and drama teachers as well to discuss plot devices as well as character development. An excellent resource, use with caution but all educators should be aware of this series. Thanks

  17. Thank you for taking the time to post about this hot topic. A coworker of mine has a elementary school age son, and he said today that they were getting emails from school about the show. We rolled our eyes and brushed it off as censorship, but I didn’t really think about the show from this angle. Like you were saying, not all children (or even adults) have the tools to process some of the material in the show. It is good to be aware of your child, their friends, and to have conversations about some of the things that happen to the characters in the show. They don’t go in depth about mental illness, rape, or survivor’s guilt in the show; but I think it is good that these discussions are arising as a result. Too often the stigmas associated with mental illness, suicide, sexual abuse, or drug abuse prevent anyone from ever talking about the subjects. I remember myself as a teenager, I would probably have been one of the impressionable children that you take care of every day. Media has the power to bring out strong reactions, feelings, emotions in us. I literally broke down when Clay started crying in the shower, and had to pace myself to finish the rest of the series. And I am 29 years old! It isn’t about censorship at all, it is about having healthy discussions with children who are watching this show, to make sure they are processing everything well, and that they know the resources they have if they are ever in trouble, or know someone who is.

  18. Hi, my name is Arturo Carbajal I think we have to be list for our children and teenagers, I propose to think about 13 reasons why to be live and counteract each one negative thoughts whit that reasons, they are the most important in our life, we have to teach them with our example and with love. Peace everyone

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  22. I 100% agree with you blog post. I myself am a suicide survivor ands it is the reason I made my blog , check out my story on my page if you want! I couldn’t even watch 12 reasons why it made me feel so uncomfortable that it was almost glorifying suicide! Well written post X

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