Child & Adolescent Clinical Specialist Jeremy Pieper blogs about the hit show "13 Reasons Why."
Netflix’s first season of the series, "13 Reasons Why," stirred up a significant amount of attention as people debated its message on suicide. In the series, 17-year-old Hannah Baker completes suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes. Each tape is targeted towards a specific person and describes how the person led her to completing suicide. The viewer follows Clay Jensen, a boy that was 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 is a split among those who believe "13 Reasons Why" exposed important, hard-to-discuss topics and those who believe the show mishandled those topics — such that watching can be harmful to certain viewers.
A Word of Caution
I, along with many mental health professionals and suicide researchers, believe the show is not suitable for all audiences, despite the producer’s consultation with mental health professionals. Vulnerable populations, such as those struggling with significant depression and/or thoughts of suicide, youth, or current students may not be a suitable audience for the show.
Hannah’s suicide causes significant torment for those she believes are responsible for her death and it works as effective revenge against them. The revenge portrays Hannah as very powerful in her death and may influence vulnerable viewers who identify with Hannah. Hannah’s failed attempts to seek help also defers much of the responsibility of her suicide onto others, not highlighting her own choices that led to her death.
Unlike what’s portrayed in the show, I believe there is help for those struggling with thoughts of suicide, but the show demonstrates little confidence in seeking help. Hannah’s only contact with a counselor portrays the counselor as unsupportive and he makes it seem like Hannah is the cause of her own sexual assault and isolation. Hannah also does not confide in 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 blame. The message portrayed through most of the show is that when dealing with difficult events and feelings, you’re on your own. The series is very graphic at times and may be disturbing to those struggling with suicide or those naive to the topic. Hannah’s suicide is shown in detail at the conclusion of the first season. There are also scenes of sexual assault, a death in a car accident, bullying and other hard-to-watch images. These images may be upsetting and difficult for some viewers to process.
As with anything that brings adversity, there is opportunity to be found in the show. The series is one of the most popular Netflix has ever produced, particularly among teenagers. Suicide, bullying, sexual assault, drunk driving and many other issues are difficult subjects for parents to discuss with their kids. This show provides a vehicle for connection and a logical opportunity to discuss these subjects.
Viewers who are mentally healthy, won’t likely identify with Hannah. They will identify with the pain felt by the other characters as they learn how their actions affected Hannah. The intended message of the show is to be kind to others, because it is unknown how your actions will affect them. Many of the interactions in "13 Reasons Why" are typical high school interactions and the series shows how damaging they can be. I’ve heard teens commenting on how the series influenced them to be more thoughtful in their interactions.
Latest Research Suggests Concerns
With the upcoming release of season three, the latest research article about "13 Reasons Why" addresses the controversy about whether the show handles its subject matters appropriately or if it’s causing more harm than good.
The article says there is an increase in suicide ideation (thoughts of suicide) and self-harm if someone at high-risk starts, but does not complete, watching the second season of "13 Reasons Why." However, if a high-risk person does watch the entirety of season two, their suicide ideation and self-harm is better than before watching. Before we try to make sense of these findings, there are a few important things to know:
• The participants were all over the age of 18
• The positive effects (decrease in suicide ideation and self-harm) were minimal in the low-risk group
• The negative effects (increase in suicide ideation and self-harm) were present for both the low and high-risk groups
Although the latest research does show some positive effects, there are concerns. The high-risk group was determined to be current students. It is logical to assume "13 Reasons Why" presents a potential harm to teens because being a current student was the determining factor of being in the high-risk group, and they don’t have the protective factor of higher education.
Considering negative effects are present in both high and low-risk groups, but the positive effects are only present in high-risk participants who watch the entire season, are the benefits worth it? Is there a better way? The answer is likely, yes.
Research shows positive messages depicting someone’s successful journey through a suicide crisis can lead to a decrease in negative outcomes. If someone is at high-risk, I recommended they find those positive stories in the media format that speaks to them. However, if someone is going to indulge in watching "13 Reasons Why," here are some additional recommendations and resources that will help.
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 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.