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.