Child & Adolescent Clinical Specialist Jeremy Pieper blogs about the hit show 13 Reasons Why.
Netflix’s new series, 13 Reasons Why, has stirred up significant attention, as people debate its message on suicide. In the series, 17-year-old Hannah Baker commits suicide and leaves behind 13 audio tapes. Each tape is targeted toward a specific person and describes how the person led to her decision to commit suicide. The viewer follows Clay Jensen, a boy in love with Hannah, as he listens to the tapes and tries to make sense of why Hannah killed herself. Clay is tormented as he learns about Hannah’s sense of isolation, social slights, being bullied, witnessing violence and sexual assault. There are people who believe 13 Reasons Why addresses important issues and other people who believe it mishandles the topics. Child & Adolescent Clinical Specialist Jeremy Pieper gives his thoughts and provides some expert advice for parents.
A Word of Caution
Although the producers of 13 Reasons Why state they consulted mental health professionals in the production of the series, there is growing consensus the show is not suitable for all audiences. Vulnerable populations, such as those struggling with significant depression and/or thoughts of suicide, should be strongly urged not to watch the show. Hannah’s suicide causes significant torment for those who she believes are responsible for her death and works as very effective revenge against them. The revenge portrays Hannah as very powerful in her death and may influence vulnerable viewers who may identify with Hannah.
There is help for those struggling with thoughts of suicide, and 13 Reasons Why demonstrates little confidence in seeking help. Hannah’s only contact with a counselor portrays the counselor as unsupportive and makes it appear Hannah is the cause of her own sexual assault and isolation. Hannah also does not speak with her parents, leaving them shocked and devastated by her suicide. The few times Hannah tries to talk to friends, she is met with disinterest or blaming. These messages send a strong sentiment that help is difficult to find and may not be available at all. The terrible events that happened to Hannah and her failed help-seeking also defer much of the responsibility of Hannah’s suicide onto others, not highlighting her own choices that lead to her death.
The series is very graphic at times and may be disturbing to vulnerable populations, such as those struggling with suicide or those who are naive to the subject matter. Netflix has increased its viewing advisories in response to the controversy around the show. However, the scenes are still available for those who disregard the advisory. Specifically, Hannah’s suicide is shown in graphic detail, and there are also two sexual assaults that occur and are witnessed. A friend of Clay’s dies in a car accident. Clay also gets in several physical altercations, one of which leads to him being significantly beaten. There are also many incidences of bullying on a variety of levels. If these images cannot be tolerated or processed, they may cause difficulty for some viewers.
As with anything that brings adversity, there is opportunity to be found in 13 Reasons Why. The series is one of the most popular series Netflix has ever produced, particularly among teenagers. Suicide, bullying, sexual assault, drunk driving and many other issues are difficult subject for parents to discuss with their kids. This series provides a vehicle for connection and a logical opportunity to discuss these subjects.
For viewers who are healthier, they will not identify with Hannah. Healthy viewers will identify with the pain felt by the other characters as they learn how their actions affected Hannah. The intended message of the show was to be kind to others because it is unknown how your actions will affect them. Many of the interactions that happen in 13 Reasons Why are typical high school interactions, and the series shows how damaging they can be to others. Many teens are commenting on how the series has influenced them to be more thoughtful in their interactions with others.
1. Vulnerable viewers, particularly vulnerable children and teens, should be discouraged from watching the series.
2. If your child or student is watching the series or has watched it, use the opportunity to discuss difficult subjects.
- Offer to watch series with them.
- Ask open-ended questions about the contents and listen non-judgmentally. How do you feel watching this? What are your friends saying about the show? What could have Hannah done differently to prevent her suicide? What could others have done differently?
- If you are concerned, ask directly “Do you feel like/have you felt like killing yourself?” Asking direct questions does not increase risk of suicide. You can also ask if they are worried about any of their friends.
3. Seek professional help, when needed. There are supports available.