As many of you may know, Netflix recently released a mini-series based on the young adult novel 13 Reasons Why. As your school counselor, I want you to be informed of the content of this show and the impact that it may have on your son or daughter.
13 Reasons Why tells the story of a high school girl (Hannah) who commits suicide. The title comes from the fact that prior to her suicide, Hannah creates thirteen audio cassette tapes, each dedicated to a person who contributed to her story. Having watched the show myself, it’s important for you to know that this show is both graphic and disturbing. Some of the situations depicted in the show include teen drug/alcohol use, bullying and cyberbullying, stalking, sexual assault, and the actual suicide. However, it is a story that has resonated deeply with many young people and is certainly gaining popularity by being translated into a streamable mini-series.
Many viewers (adults and adolescents alike) have reacted positively to 13 Reasons Why because of its stark, unfiltered portrayal of trials of modern life and how the story looks beyond the surface of these students to reveal deeply hidden connections and conflicts. However, there’s a fine line between bringing awareness to an issue and sensationalizing an issue, and I feel that 13 Reason Why missed the mark in a really crucial way. The first concern I have with this show is that people who have struggled with any of these issues may be triggered, especially due to the extreme way that these issues are depicted on the screen. It exposes its audience to extremely graphic and disturbing imagery and situations without the support that adolescents may need to process and reflect. Left to their own analyses, many young viewers may glorify Hannah’s decision. While this is not the intent of the show’s creators, this mimicry effect (known as contagion) is nevertheless a very real consequence that adults should take into consideration when young people are exposed to this kind of content.
Another shortcoming of the story (both on the page and on the screen) is how Hannah’s narration of her experience (via the audio tapes) places responsibility for her suicide on the people she interacted with in her life, not on her unaddressed mental and emotional needs. Also, while Hannah does experience a number of traumatic events (all of which are shown in the adaptation), depression and suicide ideation is not exclusively the result of these kind of issues.
For these reasons, I strongly recommend that if your son/daughter would like to watch this series, you will need to commit to watching it together as a family. I would also recommend that if you are uncertain if this show is appropriate for your son/daughter, please watch it yourself ahead of time. If you are unsure if your son/daughter has seen this show, please take this opportunity to ask and to have a conversation at home. Here are some great resources for what to talk about if you choose to watch.
If you would like to increase your knowledge of teen suicide, I would highly suggest that you to visit The American Foundation for Suicide Awareness website and become familiar with the warning signs. There are also free hotlines that you or your family may utilize if you are in crisis: 1-800-SUICIDE (273-8255)
If you would like the opportunity to explore these issues in another way, I’d suggest the following materials:
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower—Stephen Chbosky
- Ordinary People—Judith Guest
- The Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger
- Furiously Happy—Jenny Lawson
- An Unquiet Mind—Kay Redfield Jamison
- Hyperbole and a Half —Allie Brosh
- The Mighty—a community for writers to share stories on mental illness and disability
If you are concerned about your child or another young person, please reach out to me or your divisional head of school, and I will have a conversation with them. I am also available to you as a parent if you would like to talk with someone regarding your child’s social/emotional development and how MCDS as a community is growing in our ability to serve and enhance student wellness.
Working together, we can reinforce to our young people that there is hope and help available for people struggling with depression. I will continue to serve as an ambassador for mental health awareness, and advocate for student wellness, as well as an ally for those who are navigating these waters. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be working with such a fine community of young people and adults.