What is 13 Reasons Why?
13 Reasons Why is currently Netflix’s most watched show. It has been trending on social media, it has over 2 million followers on Twitter. In spite of the MA rating, teens and pre-teens are watching it, and talking about it. It has been promoted as a vehicle for starting important conversations about mental health and teen suicide. Actress Kate Walsh, one of the show’s stars, says the show should be viewed in every high school. However, suicide prevention experts have, unanimously and loudly, expressed great concern about several elements of the show. I decided to watch and see for myself.
13 Reasons Why is well written, with a cast of talented actors and a tragic story. For those who may not be familiar with the show, the 13 episodes follow the story of Hannah, a high school student who commits suicide. The story begins after Hannah’s suicide. Hannah leaves 13 cassette tapes, one for each of the 13 people she holds responsible for her suicide. The story is shown through a series of flashbacks, with a very graphic portrayal of Hannah’s suicide at the end of episode 13.
Why is I Need A Lighthouse Writing About the Show?
For the past 9 years I have spoken to thousands of high school students about depression awareness and suicide prevention. I have heard their stories: the devastating loss of a friend, a suicide attempt, struggles with depression and anxiety, fears for a depressed friend or family member. After a decade, I am convinced of two things. One, education and awareness saves lives. Talking to teens about depression and suicide; educating them and those around them about the symptoms of depression and the warning signs of suicide, reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness, and encouraging them to reach out for help, is critically important. Two, HOW we talk about suicide is equally important. Messaging that inadvertently glamorizes suicide; that blames those suffering from depression or discourages teens from reaching out to adults for help, is unhelpful and potentially dangerous. We are fortunate to have research to guide us. We know what messages decrease stigma, and what may be a trigger for struggling teens. 13 Reasons Why contains negative messaging that has raised alarms among many mental health and suicide prevention groups.
Touch Points for a Conversation
The show is engaging teens, and adults in their lives can take advantage of the opportunity to talk about the messages of the show – both positive and negative. If pre-teens and teens are watching it is critical to arm them with both context and conversation. Give context, prepare teens who plan to watch the show that the content is graphic, and that the story is fictional. Be prepared to have important conversations after the show about suicide, sexual assault, bullying, substance abuse, and numerous other topics that the show highlights. Several themes and incidents in the show are important touch points for parents watching , or discussing, the show with teens.
- Suicide is never an option – In 13 Reasons Why Hannah’s suicide is shown as her revenge, her striking back at those who have harmed her. At one point, Hannah’s friend Clay says “It is starting to make sense to me, why she did what she did.” Teenagers walking this journey with Clay may also feel that the story is a long justification for Hannah’s suicide.
- There are many healthy and constructive ways to cope with the challenges and trauma Hannah endure. Suicide ends all hope and every option for a bright future; this is the message we need to reinforce for teens.
- Hannah’s suicide is not the act of a heroine, Hannah’s suicide is an avoidable tragedy. Most individuals who face challenges like Hannah find ways to cope and reach out for help, that is heroism.
- Suicide survivors struggle, painfully, with the question “why”. It is deceptively simple and alluring to say “this is the reason”, but suicide is complex, it is the result of many factors. 13 Reasons Why missed many opportunities to address this complexity. We need to reassure those teens touched by the loss of a friend or loved one that they are not responsible.
- Processing the graphic depiction of suicide, and our emotional reaction is important – Anyone watching “13 Reasons Why” should be prepared for the graphic and disturbing depiction of a teen suicide. However, research tells us that, contrary to Mr. Schef’s assertion, graphic depictions of suicide and self-harm, can act as triggers for teens who may be fragile and at risk.
- The National Association of School Psychologists states “Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide … We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series.”
- Mental illness, most commonly depression, is a factor in over 90% of suicides – As we see Hannah’s mental health decline over the course of the series mental illness is never mentioned.
- Mental illness, most commonly depression, is a primary factor in over 90% of suicides.
- Discussing mental illness openly reduces the stigma surrounding common mental health issues facing teens, such as depression and anxiety.
- Identifying Hannah’s hopelessness and suicidality as symptoms of depression is critical to our understanding of Hannah’s suicide, a symptom of a treatable illness.
- There are peers and adults who will listen, just reach out for help. Immediately before her death Hannah reaches out to her school counselor. Hannah gives clear signals that she is depressed, yet no help is offered. This sends a message that adults, even those who are trained to help, may not listen and are unable to offer help.
- Encouraging teens to talk to an adult, to reach out for help, is key to reducing the number of lives lost to teen suicide.
- Teens who are struggling or know of a friend who is struggling can reach out to parents, teachers, coaches, pastors. Find an adult they trust, and reach out.
Final Thoughts & Finding Hope
Lighthouse’s message to teens when we talk about depression and suicide is one of hope. There is ALWAYS hope. However insurmountable and overwhelming today seems, there is a brighter future that is worth fighting for. The structure of 13 Reasons Why walks the viewer towards the foregone conclusion of Hannah’s suicide. If we watch closely, we see all the people around Hannah who would have helped, who could have helped her, but in the story did not. It is a cautionary tale, and an important conversation for us to have with teens who need to be reminded of their value and the numerous people in their lives who are ready to listen and ready to help. Some students have turned 13 Reasons Why’s bleak message on its head, that have begun movements focusing on 13 reasons why not. This is a conversation filled with hope, focusing on who was there to lend a hand and who responded when they had the courage to share their distress.
We want students to see that, despite current circumstances and struggles that feel insurmountable and permanent, a future full of opportunity and incredible experiences await them. We must remind them to keep walking, one step at a time, towards that future.
I Need A Lighthouse
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
A Teachable Moment: Webinar (addresses 13 Reasons Why)
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Mental Health America
About the Author
Kate Cardone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been Deputy Executive Director of I Need A Lighthouse, Inc. for 9 years. In her role at Lighthouse Kate has spoken to thousands of high school students about depression awareness and suicide prevention. Kate currently resides in Herndon, Virginia. Prior to joining I Need A Lighthouse Kate was Deputy Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County, MD.