13 Reflections on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why
*This post contains minor spoilers for the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why*
A trending topic at the moment is Netflix’s hit show 13 Reasons Why. If you haven’t seen it yet, the show is about Hannah Baker, a high school student who commits suicide and leaves 13 audio tapes for the people she blames for her decision, detailing the reasons why. It follows the students who must listen to the tapes as they
try to process Hannah’s actions and the events leading up to her suicide.
There has been a lot of controversy about the show, with mental health professionals issuing numerous warnings. After watching the show I immediately felt the need to help spread awareness about how potentially harmful it could be.
Below are some of my thoughts:
1. The show doesn’t take into account the developmental stage of the audience
Who watches TV shows about high school? Teenagers. While teens certainly have seen graphic images on TV and the internet before, this show is different. It inhabits their world. It bombards them with a bleak and hopeless picture. It doesn’t take into account that teenagers are a very vulnerable population. It also does a great job of allowing the audience to connect with Hannah, and so her rape and suicide are especially difficult to watch. It is important to understand that the structure of the teenage brain is very different from the adult brain which affects their ability to process information and emotion. Their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed, meaning there is a decreased ability to weigh choices and control emotional responses and impulses; and a higher likelihood of misreading emotions (i.e. to mistaken worry for disappointment), engaging in risky behavior and being influenced by peer pressure. Teenagers are also at a point in life where they struggle to define their personal identity or sense of self. All of this means that this show, created by adults, may have a very different impact on teenage viewers than imagined. This also brings up a bigger question: how are all the readily available graphic images our teens are watching affecting their ability to empathize? Are we desensitizing them to the pain of the world?
2. It may romanticize or glamorize suicide
For some, the content of the show might be terrifying and act as a deterrent. For others, however, the show may glamorize suicide. This is not a show about a hero setting things right, this is a show about a young person in pain who was failed when she reached out for help, who chose to kill herself, and who traumatized 13 other people. It is so important for those suffering to know there is a way out of the pain that does not involve suicide. While there is nothing cowardly or shameful about suicide, there is also nothing glamorous, romantic or heroic about it.
3. It doesn’t illustrate the finality of suicide
Teenagers often struggle with understanding the consequences and finality of their decisions/actions, which is what the show enforces when it glosses over the fact that suicide is final. Because of the way the show is written, Hannah is very much present throughout the series, but that’s not the case with actual suicide. A person who commits suicide won’t be around for the memorials or to hear how sad everyone is. Nor will they get closure or get to witness the guilt of their bullies.
4. The revenge fantasy may be alluring to teens in pain
While the show may help shed light on the dangers of bullying, it also may send a dangerous message to teens in pain that suicide is a good way "to get back at" bullies. Hannah used her death and the audio tapes to punish those that wronged her. This may make interesting and suspenseful television, but isn’t how people solve problems in real life. I also hope this show doesn’t further perpetuate the idea that suicide is the “final f*** you to those left behind.” That is not the intention of those who commit suicide. When a person decides to end their life, it is always tragic. It is because they are in terrible amounts of pain and cannot see a way out. The revenge fantasy minimizes this pain and tragedy.
5. It doesn’t demonstrate any coping skills
Because the show doesn’t focus on any coping skills for depression, it may seem to some viewers that suicide is the only way out of hopelessness and pain. That is simply not true. Therapy with a qualified mental health professional can help someone overcome those feelings of hopelessness and despair (Psychology Today is a great way to find a qualified therapist in your area). In fact, most teens that are bullied in high school are able to find ways to cope and eventually realize that the cliché is true, life gets better after high school.
6. The show depicts school counselors as incompetent at best, and even potentially judgmental/hurtful
I think it’s important to point out that the conversation between Hannah and the school counselor was scripted television to further the plot. A competent mental health professional would not act this way. While the depictions of Hannah’s depression is not entirely accurate, the show does do a decent job of showing how twisted our thoughts can become when taken over by depression. For example, when Hannah talks about how everyone would be better off without her, this shows how depression can lead people to overgeneralize in a negative way. It can be extremely difficult for people with depression to acknowledge positive aspects of their lives or themselves. As I mentioned above, getting help can be a crucial step in addressing these negative thought patterns and in overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.
7. Hannah’s revenge left traumatized teens in her wake
Suicide can often be traumatic for those left behind. Family and friends often wonder if there was something they could have said or done to prevent the tragedy. The characters of 13 Reasons Why are no different. It seemed Hannah intended for her suicide to force those left behind to accept accountability (which she often lacked herself) for their actions. However, the method she used – forcing the students to listen to audio tapes of herself after her suicide – is incredibly traumatic. Some of the characters exhibited signs of PTSD throughout the show, and one teen even attempted to take their own life. The show portrays a story that is incredibly sad and devastating to nearly all of the characters. Again, this is neither romantic nor heroic.
8. It is hard to watch
I’m 31 years-old (high school with all its pain and confusion was quite a long time ago!) and I’m a therapist (I have training to prepare me for witnessing the pain of others). And yet, even with these protective factors I found myself getting a little depressed, having some dark thoughts and feeling generally sad over the three days I watched the show (I’m not immune to a good TV binge either!). Imagine how much more difficult it would be for a teenager, whose brain is still growing, who also has the stress of high school and doesn’t know for SURE that things get better.
9. It is needlessly graphic
The graphic scenes of sexual assault and the suicide itself bombard viewers with images that may bring up feelings they don’t know what to do with. I work with trauma every day and still found those graphic scenes to be extremely upsetting. I have training to prepare me to deal with trauma; teenagers don’t. Some might argue that there are warnings on some of the episodes. Those warnings only appear on certain episodes, and by then the viewer is invested in knowing what happened. The warning should be before each episode and should include information about how and where to get help if the viewer is feeling suicidal.
10. Suicide can be contagious
We also know that being exposed to suicide (through the media or perhaps even TV) can bring about a contagious feeling of suicide and teens are especially vulnerable to this. So it’s no wonder that after watching 13 hours of a show about suicide and hopelessness I started to feel affected by it…again imagine how much more a teenager might be affected. The graphic depiction of the suicide may also be seen as a how-to guide for teens in real distress.
11. Well, at least it got us talking
Since its premiere on March 31, 13 Reasons Why has soared in popularity. This means that there is a long overdue conversation about suicide, depression, and the struggles of high school finally happening. Let’s face it, with increasing pressures telling us how we should look and act, and the widespread use of social media, high school looks a lot different today than even a few years ago. Teens these days are faced with bullies that can follow them home through social media, and their mistakes have higher potential to be broadcast in a way their parents never had to worry about when they were young. As a society, we need to do more to understand how social media is affecting how our children grow up. We also need to do more to reduce the stigma of mental illness and to support those going through it. The show may be a good starting point for parents and educators to have discussions with teens about depression and suicide (click here for tips on starting that conversation).
12. We could all be a little more kind to each other
The series attempts to spread a message that we could also use: be kind to others. We truly never know how our actions can affect another person. Sometimes the smallest acts of kindness and compassion can turn a person’s whole day around. That being said, we could all show ourselves a little more kindness and compassion as well.
13. Depression needs to be taken seriously; know the signs and know the resources
So where do we go from here? The damage has been done, so to speak. The show is already out there and millions of people are watching it. All we can do is continue to spread the word about how to get help, and to educate about the warnings signs of depression and suicide.
If you or someone you know, is having suicidal thoughts please reach out to someone you can trust, or to a qualified mental health professional. There are additional resources available such as The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (phone calls and online chat) or the Crisis Text Line (texting). Both services are free, available 24/7, and confidential. The Crisis Text Line may be more appealing to teens who are more used to the convenience of using their phones for just about everything.