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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25 thoughts on “Responding to 13 Reasons Why

  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.

  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/

  9. Pingback: Damaged_Luna

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