You may have heard of 13 Reasons Why, a new hit Netflix original series, based on the novel of the same name. It has virally captivated audiences, with many young people in particular, and invokes serious, strong emotional investments in the stories of the characters depicted. Social media is full of teens commenting on the most “important,” “powerful,” and “deep,” moments depicted in this series. However, this show, despite it’s mysterious and captivating nature, is not harmless and you should be aware of everything that is depicted in each episode before watching with your teen or letting your teen watch it.
13 Reasons Why is a drama narrated by Hannah Baker, a high school junior who commits suicide and leaves behind thirteen audio cassette tapes naming a person and describing what he or she did to lead her to take her own life. The story follows Clay Jensen, one of Hannah’s classmates and friends, as he listens to each of the cassette tapes and retraces Hannah’s suicidal steps. These steps go all the way from a terrible rumor that was started about her, to losing her best girlfriend, to being raped (depicted in graphic detail) at a party, and finally to her suicide by slitting her wrists (depicted in graphic detail) in a bathtub.
I’ve watched every episode and, for better or worse, found myself rather captivated by the story being told. Despite the fact that Hannah’s suicide is revealed in the first moments of the episode, this is a very well made drama that left me desperately eager to know what would happen next and I can easily understand why teens are so attracted and addicted to the show. While this is a well made and captivating series, there are two major considerations you should make before letting your teen watch 13 Reasons Why.
1. There are real triggers in this show
While watching the series, I found myself stunned by how dramatically it portrays high school. I’ve been out of high school for seven years, so I’m no spring chicken, but if this show is anything close to reality (I have my doubts) tensions certainly seem to have heightened since my graduation.
The circumstances that the teens encounter at “Liberty High” are incredibly intense and dramatic. While I don’t intend to trivialize any of the topics presented in the series, they are highly concentrated and dramatized in a way that may not be entirely realistic. Because the topics presented, and they way that they are presented, are SO intense I believe that it can seriously affect the viewers in a negative way.
The series contains multiple graphic depictions of sexual assault and an incredibly graphic and painful-to-watch on-screen suicide. Additionally, 13 Reasons Why depicts casual drug and alcohol use among high schoolers. While it doesn’t necessarily present drug and alcohol use in a positive light, it does seem to further normalize the idea that substance abuse is just another inescapable reality of high school and thus not a big deal.
A viewer who has ever struggled with bullying, sexual assault, sexual shame, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts will likely be very negatively affected by this show. The memories, fears, and any current thoughts associated with such experiences will certainly be triggered.
Many have commented on how dangerous this show is for any who may be currently dealing with suicidal thoughts, which leads me to my next major warning …
2. This series does not depict suicide, depression, and mental illness in an honest way.
Mental illness or depression are not explicitly discussed or dealt with at any point in this series. The audience is left with the notion that the people around Hannah Baker are solely responsible for her death because of their actions, or lack thereof. The season ends with the suggestion that, if only these people had done things a little bit differently, been a little more kind, been a little more aware, a little more loving, Hannah might still be alive. And while a push for more kindness and overall goodness is not a bad thing, this message suggests that suicide is avoidable if we’re all just nicer to each other.
While the issues presented in this series – such as bullying, not saying anything when you see depressive or suicidal signs, and sexual assault – are serious issues that can drive people to suicidal thoughts, the reality is that suicide is rarely avoided with good sentiments alone. The vast majority of suicides are caused by mental illness or depression and require more than the presence of a good friend or the absence of any serious issues or struggles – they require serious, professional help.
Because the interior reality of mental illness or depression and the way it can lead a person to consider suicide is not depicted clearly in the show, it becomes romanticized and almost glorified in Hannah’s actions. It shows Hannah as merely a victim of her circumstances, with no control or choice in her own response to what happens to her other than suicide. The only control she takes of her circumstances is that of ending her life and making sure any person who contributed to that decision is aware of his or her responsibility. She is painted as a sort of heroic martyr by committing suicide and leaving behind the thirteen “lessons” so everyone can know know how they can be better in the future. Her death is implicitly honored as a self-sacrifice, necessary for the betterment of the community she left behind.
Unfortunately, there is a legitimate cause for concern over how this heroic suicide message might affect a viewer who struggles with suicidal thoughts. It is easy to see how one might watch this show and walk away feeling even more attracted to the idea of ending his or her own life especially if he or she is suffering from a serious mental illness or depression already.
After watching every episode in its entirety, I would highly advise any viewer, parent, teen, young adult, to take serious caution before watching. As a parent, you have the decision of whether or not to let your teen watch this show, but whether or not your teen does watch the show, everyone’s talking about it.
I’d suggest first asking your teens if and what they have heard about the show, and then use it as a springboard into a serious discussion about the heavy topics that are presented all the while keeping them in the perspective that it is still a TV series and made to be more dramatic and captivating. This could also be a great time to discuss with your teen what they hear at school, what their friends say, or what they have experienced in regards to things such as anxiety, bullying, depression, suicide, substance abuse, mental illness, and sexual assault and to share some of these resources with them.
If the show makes one thing clear, it is that ignoring and trivializing these issues only causes them to grow increasingly dangerous. So be open, be honest, and be raw with your teen. Learn about the show first, be aware of what is portrayed, and start the conversation. Talk to them. And, more importantly, listen.