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What You Need to Know before Watching 13 Reason’s Why
If you’re plugged into social media, watch the news, or have a teen at home, chances are you have heard or seen something about the wildly popular Netflix series, 13 Reason’s Why (13RW). In fact, according to Fizzology, a research firm that analyzes social media data, 13RW inspired more tweets during its premiere week than any other Netflix series in its history (3,585,100 tweets to be exact). There has been a lot of heated debate on whether this new series could be causing more harm than good when it comes to the issue of teen suicide.
If you are unfamiliar with the series, it is based off of Jay Asher’s 2007 best-selling book by the same title, where high school student Hannah Baker leaves behind 13 tapes explaining why she took her own life. Each tape is dedicated to a specific person who she felt played a role in her death. The person on the first tape passes them on to the person on the second tape, and so on. To ensure that each person listens to the tapes, Hannah designated a friend to guard a second set of tapes and release them if anyone breaks her rules. While the story is mainly narrated by Hannah, we follow her friend and love interest, Clay Jensen, as he listens to the tapes.
I read the book several years ago and I was looking forward to the series premier on March 31st. Working in the suicide prevention and mental health field, I was excited that Netflix was promoting a show that had some major power to raise awareness around such a serious and important topic. As I began watching the first few episodes, my excitement quickly turned to concern and fear. Concern for the millions of attempt survivors, loss survivors, youth, or unsuspecting viewer, who watches this series and are left in a vulnerable state without any resources or support. Fear over the way the show graphically depicts sexual assault, rape, and suicide.
First, I want to say that I believe that the people involved in the creation of this series had good intentions. I think they wanted to bring teen issues such as bullying, rape, assault, drinking and driving, and suicide to the forefront of conversations. They wanted to illustrate these issues as realistic as possible and by doing so, I think they made some major mistakes that could put the lives of their viewers at risk. Before you or your teen watches the series, below are some ideas to keep in mind:
Suicide is much more complicated than a simple cause and effect.
Placing the blame on a specific person or situation for someone’s suicide is unfair. As a society we generally place blame on a recent life event such as a breakup, a bad grade, financial stress, or bullying. What we often fail to consider are biological factors (family history of mental illness), psychological factors (perfectionism), and past history (previous attempts). Suicide is complicated and is not the result of a single life event. While we generally will never know the “Why?” behind someone’s suicide, we know that most people who die by suicide were experiencing an underlying mental illness, multiple outside stressors, and several risk factors at the time of their death.
It’s important to understand that risk factors are not causes. Risk factors of suicide can include abuse, trauma, family conflict, major disappointments, traumatic breakups, bullying, harassment, and prior suicide attempts. The more risk factors someone has exposure to, the higher their risk for suicide. However, just because someone has exposure to one or multiple risk factors, it does not mean someone is “destined” to die by suicide, either.
The writers completely ignore suicide prevention best practices and safe messaging.
Best practices and guidelines for safe messaging were developed because they are necessary to reduce contagion and suicide risk. For example, it is best practice to avoid memorializing a student who died by suicide. In the series, the school unknowingly glamorized Hannah’s death by decorating her locker and turning it into a memorial. Why is this dangerous? Imagine you are a student who feels invisible and you saw all the attention Hannah received by taking her own life. Don’t you think an at-risk youth could potentially see this as a “reason” to follow suit? Many teens may view suicide as a way to finally be seen, gain popularity, fame, or even as a way to live on forever in their peers’ memory. What they may not realize is that once they make that fatal choice, they will never see the devastation and pain they leave behind. Everyone else will eventually move on, their peers will go on to graduate, go to college, get married, and even have children. By making the decision to end their life, they will not get to experience all of the challenges and beauty life has to offer.
There is also a scene toward the beginning where the school provided a suicide prevention lesson immediately following Hannah’s death. While this is a subject that is critical, it’s inappropriate after a suicide loss. It is best practice to provide postvention support in the wake of a loss. Suicide postvention is aimed to support the newly bereaved by offering an opportunity to destress and debrief, which can reduce the likelihood of contagion. It’s suggested that schools allow students to meet with counselors and have staff lead small group conversations. This allows students the opportunity to ask questions, grieve with their peers, and remember the life of the person they lost, rather than focusing on the way their life ended. It also shows them that there are adults who care and are available to them if they ever need help.
“Every time you raise the topic of suicide you must pair it with the message of prevention and hope,” said Dr. Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Office with American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, during a recent webinar. “The message is that every person in the entire world, even the ones you most highly respect, face challenges of all sorts.”
There are no positive examples of help seeking.
I knew from the beginning that the premise of the show was Hannah telling her story of what lead her to decide to end her life. However, I hoped that someone would eventually point out that while she was clearly trying to cope with more than she had the ability to deal with on her own, she had other options. Suicide should never have been one of those options. There were people in her life who cared about her, but she never reached out to them.
Toward the end of the series, Hannah does make an attempt to reach out for help from her school counselor. In a tense and extremely uncomfortable scene, the counselor essentially victim blames Hannah when she exposes that she was raped by an upperclassman. My heart broke for her because that was the moment she decided that no one cared about her and suicide was her only option. We always tell students that if they are having issues that are too big to handle alone, to turn to a trusted adult. I fear that this appalling example will prevent other youth from reaching out for help when they need it most.
The state of Hannah’s mental health is never addressed.
Nearly 90 percent of people who die by suicide have an undiagnosed or an undertreated mental illness. Watching the series I felt that she may have been dealing with more than just back-stabbing and rumors. It seemed to me that she may have actually been struggling with depression and anxiety. I think the writers missed a huge opportunity to talk about mental health. However, according to AFSP, two out of three teens with depression do not get treatment…so maybe this was a more realistic portrayal of teen mental health in the U.S. than we would like to admit?
Graphic scenes cause concerns for contagion and trauma activation for viewers.
If you have not seen the series or you have not made it to the last three episodes, be warned that they are not for the faint of heart. In the book, Hannah ends her life by overdose, however, in the show she dies by cutting. Illustrated in real time, the audience watches as she climbs into the bath tub and slowly bleeds to death. As an adult who reads, writes, and talks about suicide and suicide prevention every day, I found myself shielding my eyes from the screen. It was simply too much to take in. For a young person, particularly one who is struggling with depression or has made an attempt in the past, this scene alone is enough to trigger someone.
When you read a book, you only see what your imagination is capable of producing. When you watch the same scene on screen, you have no control or filter over the images you see. The suicide scene alone is more than most people can handle seeing, especially a young person.
Its undeniable that 13RW has people talking. But it’s crucial for viewers who may be considering suicide to understand that suicide will not end their pain; it will simply transfer that pain on to their loved ones who are left behind. Mental illness, including depression, is manageable with proper treatment. If you or someone you know are depressed or are having thoughts of suicide, please know you are not alone…reach out! Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)273-8255 or text START to 741-741. Life is not always easy, but it’s always worth living.
Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a Speech Communication Minor from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition and The Metro Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.