Why We Must Pay Attention to the Lessons in ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’

Rear view of father with arm on shoulders of teenagerA few weeks ago, I had two people I work with in my private practice reference the Netflix original series Thirteen Reasons Why. This captivating miniseries, based on the 2007 teen fiction book of the same title by best-selling author Jay Asher, follows the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student who dies by suicide, leaving behind 13 audio recordings detailing the stories and reasons behind her tragic decision.

The first person who mentioned this series to me talked about offering support to a classmate who opened up about her own struggles after being triggered by the show’s mention of suicide. The other person who referenced the show talked about how deeply the series impacted him. We discussed how he identified with the “if only” and “I wish I would have” thoughts of another main character, Clay Jensen, the friend and crush Hannah left behind.

Recognizing it seems to be an emotional and thought-provoking peek into the life of many teens and young adults, I decided to watch the show myself and have since been hearing a lot of chatter regarding this controversial series.

The show has received criticism for “glorifying” suicide. Some are concerned it paints suicide as a viable and easy option for those with depression or facing the pain of bullying, or that it will result in copycat behaviors by teens starved for attention or looking for relief from their struggles. Apparently, several schools around the nation have sent letters to parents cautioning them against allowing their children to watch the show, and various mom groups have started campaigns to block the show from their homes.

Concerns regarding the romanticizing of suicide or the depiction of suicide as a viable option for coping with life’s struggles are valid; however, I believe this leap to fear misses the major point and objective of the show. Series writer Nic Sheff writes in Vanity Fair of the positive impact he believes Thirteen Reasons Why provides. He talks about the series “offering hope to young people, letting them know they are not alone—that somebody out there gets them” and states his position that “facing these issues head-on—talking about them, being open about them—will always be our best defense against losing another life.”

Fortunately, the life lost in this series is fictitious, yet the character of Hannah Baker sheds light on several important issues we all need to open our eyes to. Suicide, albeit a major theme of the show, is only one of the many difficult topics brought to the table. What the show does so well is highlight some of the major issues that contribute to the challenges teenagers—and others—are vulnerable to. Bullying, rumor spreading, sexual harassment, rape, trauma, homophobia, neglect, and drug/alcohol use are all major issues in our society and things that can quickly escalate to the point of significantly damaging or even destroying a life. Yet, people are often afraid to confront these topics.

For me, the biggest takeaway from the show is the realization we need to be thoughtful regarding how our words and actions may impact others. The show highlights how influential various relationships and interactions can be. Even seemingly minor incidents may be deeply scarring to somebody when it happens amid a host of other setbacks.

It is important for parents, teachers, school counselors, and therapists to be aware of this show’s existence and to open the doors to communication. When something provocative and controversial like Thirteen Reasons Why comes out, rather than panic or try to shield our kids from it, we need to seize the opportunity and use the material as a teaching moment, allowing us to begin conversations about topics that are otherwise difficult to initiate. Instead of trying to shelter our kids from these types of shows, movies, or novels, we need to recognize the topics depicted are things our kids likely already experience, or at least may be surrounded by in their schools, peer groups, and on social media. Shielding them from the show does not protect them from the struggles and potential harm that already exist in their world.

The show is out there and it’s not going away. If you have or know of a child or friend who may be interested in the show, especially those who are at risk for depression, self-injurious behaviors, or suicidal ideation, you might want to encourage them to watch the show with a parent or trusted mentor, rather than alone, so the material can be processed and discussed through productive and healthy dialogue.

For me, the biggest takeaway from the show is the realization we need to be thoughtful regarding how our words and actions may impact others. The show highlights how influential various relationships and interactions can be. Even seemingly minor incidents may be deeply scarring to somebody when it happens amid a host of other setbacks.

Further, we need to be cognizant that how we view or interpret the actions of others may not be accurate. We all have stories we tell ourselves regarding why things happen or why others do the things they do, and these stories may or may not line up to what’s true or real for that person. We never truly know what is going on in other people’s worlds, but we need to be aware that even the smallest of actions can have a major impact. Thus, it is important for us all to be more compassionate and understanding of one another.

Only in being kind and respectful, and in learning to effectively communicate, can we find healthy solutions to problems and positive ways to cope with the struggles we face. As Clay Jensen says in the final episode, “It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other—it has to get better somehow.” The way to make this happen is by talking—not shying away from difficult conversations or hiding from painful topics—and instead ensuring honesty and effective communication, along with compassion and kindness, are the lessons our children receive.

Reference:

Sheff, N. (April 19, 2007). Thirteen Reasons Why writer: Why we didn’t shy away from Hannah’s suicide. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/04/13-reasons-why-suicide-controversy-nic-sheff-writer

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • zoe

    May 16th, 2017 at 9:41 AM

    all of my friends are watching and my parents don’t want me to
    but i want to know what all the fuss is about
    i don’t think that i could ever get to the point of thinking that suicide was the only option for getting out that i had
    but i do know that there are probably some people close to the edge that this might encourage them

  • Nell

    May 17th, 2017 at 7:56 AM

    I can understand the need to watch this, and I don’t necessarily think that that by itself is a terrible thing. I do though wish that more parents were watching this with their teens so that this could be a real conversation starter for the family.

    I know that there will be many teenagers who shy away from the mandatory viewing with the parents, but I think that this is one of those shows that even if they go back and watch it alone, it would be good to have a parent there with them the first time around.

    You just have to hope that doing things like that will at least help them feel like they have an opening to talk about those uncomfortable things if they do come up at any point in time.

  • Heather T

    May 18th, 2017 at 8:49 AM

    Agreed Nell. See my comment.

  • Tianna

    May 17th, 2017 at 10:57 AM

    I would certainly feel so guilty about not talking about it if the actions found in the show were ones that encouraged my own children to do something dangerous.

  • Heather T

    May 18th, 2017 at 8:47 AM

    I am a parent to two teens and a trauma-informed advocate for abuse survivors. We watched the show with our girls and discussed each episode with the understanding that bullying, sexual assault, verbal and emotional abuse can take you down a very dark path. All of us thought the series accurately portrayed the outcome of ignored and unresolved trauma. It opened conversation about compassion, safety and adult responsibility to educate and care for teens, who are still developing. As adults, we must all learn to assess for signs & symptons of bullying, assault, suicidal ideation etc. My husband is a teacher, which added further insight to our conversations. Asbyou can tell, we did not have a problem with the series. However, it needs to be viewed with sensitivity and information and with access to resources should someone experience triggers.

  • Erika

    May 18th, 2017 at 4:31 PM

    As a community based crisis therapist who had worked intensely with many suicidal teens and their families, I have some opinions on this:
    1) this show is a pretty inaccurate display of teen suicide. If we want to inform our teens and “not shield” them why would we expose them to inaccurate or misleading information?
    2) This show has real impacts. Not every child has a safe adult to guide them in having a positive discussion and learning experience around this. In fact those children that do are not the ones who are most at risk. Many youth do not have the critical thinking skills, emotional regulation skills or trigger management skills to watch this show with a positive impact. In fact the negative impacts are very real and severe. I know for a fact that youth have attempted suicide after seeing this show (and not just a couple), at some point one of them will likely succeed – but I’m glad the show offered you an opportunity to talk to your teen 🙄
    I also know for a fact that youth are teasing other youth in really harmful ways based on this show.
    3) I’m glad the author got a nice message about being aware of how your words and actions affect others. But the thing is that most youth will likely not perceive this message (based on their brain development) and instead identify with the main character and perceive a message around feeling validated in certain responses or feelings because of things their peers have done/said. Because in essence this is a suicide revenge story.
    4) yes we need to talk to youth about suicide and yes we should not be shielding them. Shielding teens from many things is unhelpful. However, that doesn’t mean that any exposure to it is helpful, appropriate or useful. We need to talk to our teens about violence and sex, but we wouldn’t watch a graphic unrealistic depiction of those things with them. We certainly wouldn’t be fine with (and are not fine with) those things being easily accessible to any teen or any aged youth. So why do we feel it’s ok here? Just because it is about something important doesn’t mean it’s educational.
    Finally this show and mainly the accessibility of the show is Irresponsible. We KNOW that exposure to this type of depictions increases teen suicides, there is plenty of documented research on that. There are other ways to have these convos with kids that don’t increase risk of harm. You tell a family who’s teen attempted suicide after watching this show that people are over reacting and let me know how that goes.

  • whitt

    May 20th, 2017 at 5:50 AM

    and now I just heard they are doing a second season- gahhh!

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