A new TV series addressing many sensitive topics such as substance abuse, harassment, sexual assault, and teen suicide has recently premiered on Netflix. These episodes have explicit scenes, some of which are quite disturbing. The premise of the show, see book review and Netflix trailer below, is to learn about the reasons why the protagonist takes her own life. We in the CHS, HHS, and PAL Counseling Departments are grateful for anything that embraces suicide prevention, but we are concerned that the show leaves out the biggest cause for teen suicide, which is mental illness.
If you haven’t heard about the show, here is a little background on it.
13 Reasons Why is based on a novel by Jay Asher (for more info click here)
A trailer for the tv series
Here is a review of the show by a high school student, Jaclyn Grimm, who also struggles with mental health and suicidal thoughts.
For most viewers of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, the message is clear: Be kind, it could save a life. But that isn’t what I watched.
Since its release on March 31, viewers have taken to Twitter and other social media platforms to proclaim their love for the show, stressing how important they think it is. I’ve seen people go so far as to suggest it become required viewing for middle and high school students, despite the graphic displays of assault and, ultimately, suicide.
I’ve dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts since middle school, about the younger age of 13 Reasons Why’s audience. I never imagined logistics: razor blades cutting delicate skin, the quick violence of a gunshot. What I saw in my mind was crying peers and thousands of flowers and people wishing they had reached out to me. I didn’t want pain; I wanted control. While watching the show, the bullying, assault and even the suicide itself didn’t stand out to me. All I could focus on was the power the main character had after her death.
That’s no spoiler — 13 Reasons Why opens with the aftermath of high school student Hannah Baker’s suicide. Clay Jensen, Hannah’s classmate and co-worker, receives 13 cassette tapes detailing the reasons Hannah killed herself. Hannah was bullied, assaulted and ignored while she was alive, but her death and the tapes she left behind changed that. She gained power through suicide, and that’s a dangerous message.
13 Reasons Why isn’t dangerous only for depressed and suicidal teens. Where the show romanticizes the aftermath of suicide, it also blames everyone in Hannah’s life.
While the characters mentioned in Hannah’s cassette tapes should certainly be held accountable for their actions, the show misleads the viewer into believing there is someone to blame for suicide. The premise perpetuates the idea that there is always liability when someone commits suicide. One character even states: “Well, we ALL killed Hannah Baker.”
Friends of those who commit suicide already go through a sort of survivor’s guilt, whether they have a reason to or not. In many cases, they are Clays — bystanders to bullying and depression. Clay isn’t explicitly blamed in Hannah’s tape. In her own words, “Your name doesn’t belong on this list. … You’re good and kind and decent and I didn’t deserve to be with someone like you.” But though she says Clay can’t be blamed, it’s clear the show is condemning him for never stepping in. He ends the show by admitting, “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her,” and while an adult reminds him love can’t save lives, the show ultimately agrees with Clay’s perspective.
Being kind isn’t a bad message, but in the context of the show it becomes complicated. The last episode ends with Clay reaching out to Skye, a student similar to Hannah in many ways. It implies that by being kind, he is able to save her in the way he didn’t save Hannah. Because the show doesn’t discuss mental illness, this scene suggests that saving someone from suicide is as easy as a friendly gesture. Clay doesn’t see suicidal warning signs and direct Skye to someone who actually can — an adult who could make sure she sees a mental health professional. Instead, he presumably saves her just by being nice; that’s not how suicide works.
There are no magic words or gestures that can make a suicidal person want to live. Teenagers should be aware of signs of depression and suicidal thoughts, but they shouldn’t think their kindness can “fix” anyone. That idea prevents depressed teens from getting actual help and places an enormous weight on the shoulders of the people left behind.
In 13 Reasons Why, I don’t see a daring and powerful teen drama. It’s just a tired attempt at discussing a difficult topic. It’s clear the creators see suicide only for its shock value, and I worry for the teens like me who will watch the show.
Jaclyn Grimm, 18, is a writer and high school student who lives in Orlando. Follow her on Twitter @grimmjac
The “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” a list of guidelines for media outlets developed by suicide prevention experts and journalists, emphasizes that suicide is usually the result of multiple causes, often involving mental illness, and not something that can be blamed on a person or single event. And experts advise against sensational headlines or describing a suicide in graphic detail, which studies have shown can lead to suicide contagion or “copycat” suicides.
While “13 Reasons Why” is fiction, it presents similar concerns for advocates working to educate the public. In 2014, suicide was the second leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teenagers, a key demographic for the book and, ostensibly, the series are at particular risk when it comes to contagion.
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), said he has received calls and emails from parents and school guidance counselors about the show. “There is a great amount of concern in the suicide prevention community around this series,” he said.
The show deviates from the book and unfolds over a longer period of time, but the overall conceit is the same. For Reidenberg, the fact that Hannah gets to tell her story after her death, through the audiotapes, glamorizes the death and sends a potentially dangerous message to viewers.
“Young people are not that great at separating fiction from reality,” Reidenberg said. “That gets even harder to do when you’re struggling with thoughts.”
SAVE partnered with the Jed Foundation, a youth suicide prevention group, to compile a list of talking points to help parents discuss the series with their teenagers. The list emphasizes that Hannah’s experience with her guidance counselor isn’t “appropriate or typical.” And unlike the show, it uses the term mental illness. Well-established research suggests that 90 percent of individuals who commit suicide experience mental illness, but “13 Reasons Why” never explicitly considers whether Hannah is suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues.
It is not our recommendation that students avoid this wildly popular show. We just hope that it sparks conversation and reinforces the importance of reaching out for help when needed. Through informed discussion and action, we can effectively increase our prevention efforts. We all know our community has been affected by teen suicide, and we just hope the popularity of this show does not lead to more loss. We in the schools are here to help, but we also wanted to link additional resources for students and parents.
You can contact your child’s school counselor at
Jeramie Robinson, 324-2493 firstname.lastname@example.org
Dana Meldrum, 324-2491 email@example.com
Jamie Bawden, 324-2492 firstname.lastname@example.org
Chance Ferlicka, 324-2490 email@example.com
Ellaina Staldine, 324-2227 firstname.lastname@example.org
Shane Dempsey, 324-2224 email@example.com
Jason Murgel, 324-2226 firstname.lastname@example.org
Chrissy Murgel, 324-2223 email@example.com
Sara Berg, 324-1650 firstname.lastname@example.org