Thoughts about the TV series, 13 Reasons Why

Thoughts about the TV series, 13 Reasons Why

By Nancie Jordan, MFT

There has been much attention recently on the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” based on the best-selling 2007 book, written by Jay Asher.  13 Reasons is the story of a teen girl named Hannah who commits suicide. She leaves behind a series of tapes that hold 13 people accountable as the reason why she committed suicide. Because the show addresses issues related to suicide and sexual assault there have been many fears and negative reactions expressed by concerned parents and treatment providers.  The series was filmed in Marin County which makes it feel even more closely reflective of our culture. We agree that the series is controversial and merits discussion. We want to address these concerns. 

One of the criticisms is that the show is too graphic and could be triggering to teens who are at risk. This is true. Teens who watch this series may find themselves identifying with the characters in the series.  If you are someone who has had significant depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts or behaviors in the recent past or present this show may be too triggering for you to watch.  We suggest you make a careful decision about whether to watch the show or if you want to let your teen watch this show. We suggest that parents who do decide to let their teen watch this series that you watch it with them so it can be a platform for helping you talk to your kids. You may want to watch the series first to anticipate and know where the graphic parts are in the story.   Some parents have agreed with their kids ahead of time to fast forward through the graphic parts. Also, we recommend that you not “binge watch” this series so as to reduce the chances of it feeling too overwhelming and that you make sure to stop and talk about what you or your teen is experiencing as you watch the show.

Other criticisms of 13 Reasons are that the depiction of the suicide is somewhat skewed toward blaming others. At the same time, most of Hannah’s friends appear to act in selfish or in uncaring ways. It’s difficult to watch as the drama evolves and people seem so uncaring while she is obviously suffering. The adults around her are depicted as either unaware, unhelpful or unable to figure out how to provide support. Regardless of your perspective on the show, it provides us with an opportunity to talk about difficult emotional issues and how to be helpful when we or our friends are struggling. As a teen, you can think about and discuss how you might have made different choices from those made by Hannah or other characters in the story.  

For parents, be careful not to offer quick fixes or solutions.  Listen and offer validation of your teen’s feelings and non-judgemental support.  Here are some open-ended questions to ask:

What do you think about Hannah’s choices? 

How do you think her friends could have been more helpful?

What could her parents or the counselor have done differently?

What do you think about her blaming others for her suicide? 

What could you say or do for friends if you think they are feeling isolated, being bullied or feeling suicidal?

If you are or were the victim of bullying, sexual abuse or if you are feeling depressed or suicidal who could you trust or reach out to for help?

If your teen is talking about his or her own level of stress do not hesitate to ask them how you can better support them. Educate yourself. Reach out to a professional. Know the warning signs of suicidal behavior.  If you are a teen who is struggling emotionally or if you are in a possible suicidal crisis get yourself to help now! Talk to your parent, your counselor, or a trusted adult. Another resource is the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-talk(8225) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741. 

The underlying message here is that no matter how someone looks or acts you never truly know what’s happening in their lives. What we can do is to practice being kind. In DBT skills language we call this “contributing”. It’s about finding the way to contribute to others, even if it’s just in small ways, like saying hello to the grocery clerk who is checking out your groceries, or giving someone a smile and asking about their day. You may never know how your small act of kindness today might help someone else feel better or help them get through the day. Ultimately being kind or contributing to others makes us feel better about ourselves and makes others feel cared about. As Socrates said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”