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Thinking about 13 Reasons Why: Teens, Mental Health and Media

Please Note: This Post Will Contain Discussions of Triggering Topics and Spoilers for the Book/Show

13reasonswhy

You are probably aware that 13 Reasons Why the book by Jay Asher has been made into a popular Netflix show. And you’ve probably seen a lot of discussion about this show. In fact, if you’re life looks anything like mine then you have seen a plethora of articles and posts about how everyone should watch the show followed by a discussion of how everyone shouldn’t watch the show. I’ve read more than 10 articles, not to mention all the Facebook and Twitter discussion.

A Little Background

Years ago when I read the book, I liked it and recommended it. I have not re-read the book in preparation for watching the show. If you are not aware, it is a book that deals with bullying, sexual violence and suicide. These are all tough topics to tackle.

The basics: Clay Jensen, a shy high school student, returns home from school one day to find that he has received a mysterious package in the mail. It contains seven double-sided cassette tapes used by Hannah Baker, a classmate who has recently committed suicide. Each tape details a reason that she killed herself.

To give you a little more background about me, I am the survivor of sexual abuse and I have been suicidal as a result of that abuse. I also periodically struggle with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. So I can relate to this book on so many levels.

What I Told My Teen

In addition to working with teens, for over 20 years now, I also parent a teen. She began watching the Netflix show and we watched a couple of episodes of the show together. I was struck immediately by how graphic the show was. Please note that it comes with a M for mature content warning. So I decided to watch ahead to see how the topics of sexual violence and suicide were handled.

After doing so, I told my teen that I did not want her to finish watching the show. I have never censored what she reads, and I would allow her to read the book, but I told her that she couldn’t finish watching the show.

My Reasons Why

For one, I just don’t watch depictions of sexual violence on tv or in the movies. That is a full stop no for me. The sexual violence depicted in this tv show is very graphic. You can make the argument that it’s necessary and is done to help illustrate how horrific sexual violence is, but the depiction of sexual violence on the screen is a no go for me. For one, no matter how well done it is, you know that there are depraved individuals watching who are, to be blunt, getting off on it. For another, I always wonder how having to film these types of scenes is for the actors involved. And these scenes are, for so many people, very triggering. Below we will discuss how mental health experts suggest that suicide should not be depicted on the screen, and I feel the same way about sexual violence.

Then there is the idea of suicide as revenge. In 13 Reasons Why the main character, Hannah, commits suicide and leaves a series of cassette tapes that tell everyone the role they played in her suicide. It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy – I will take my own life and you will feel guilty for it. It’s also an incredibly unhealthy message to send to teenagers, many of whom are already thinking about the suicide as revenge fantasy as they try to navigate their daily lives. In the midst of my abuse, I too thought a lot about suicide as the ultimate form of revenge. I thought that if I took my life then my abuser would be haunted forever for what they had done to me. But adult me now realizes this simple truth: the people that hurt you are often bad people, they aren’t going to care that you are gone. It’s true that sometimes good, decent people make mistakes that hurt us and they would feel guilty, but it’s also true that a lot of abuse is perpetuated by people who don’t care about others so they aren’t going to feel guilt. Surviving abuse is, I have found, the best form of revenge.

As a further point, it’s important to note that mental health experts state that suicide should never be depicted on the screen. For reasons that we don’t clearly understand, suicide can be a very chain reaction type of thing, especially among teenagers. When a school experiences a suicide, there are often a couple more. People struggling with depression and suicidal ideation are very susceptible to this topic. And the suicide in 13 Reasons Why is very, very graphic. It goes against the recommendations of the organizations that are committed to mental health.

I also have concerns about the way mental health is depicted in the show. There is little to no genuine discussion about mental health issues in this show. We are led to understand that Hannah has depression, but what does that mean? Does Hannah have depression AND she was the subject of this awful crime and bullying? Or does Hannah have depression BECAUSE she was the subject of this awful crime and bullying? Depression can be a product of brain chemistry, but you can also have situational depression. Depression is not only one thing and it doesn’t manifest in the same way for all people. I felt that the show did a very poor job of handling the mental health aspects.

The teens in this show almost never seek out the help of an adult. As Clay listens to the tapes, he never discusses any of what is happening with an adult. We do find out that Hannah did in fact reach out to one adult, her school counselor, and that this adult fails her. This scenario actually played out in real life just this past weekend as my daughter’s friend reached out to her school counselor about a rumor that was being spread in school and this counselor told her to “just let it blow over”. I spent the weekend dealing with the very real life ramifications of a poorly trained and unengaged school counselor so this scenario isn’t far fetched or unbelievable, but it is dangerous. In a show filled with adults, having the only adult that these teens reach out to fail reinforces the teenage belief that adults aren’t there for teens. Now I know it was necessary to propel this story forward, but I also acknowledge that it is a dangerous reinforcement of a commonly held teenage belief: adults are self-absorbed, adults don’t care, adults are incompetent. Teens struggling with mental health issues need to know that they can and should reach out to the adults in their lives to seek help.

In teen reactions I have seen to the show there has been a lot of if only . . . If only Clay had told Hannah that he loved her. If only Clay had done this or that or the other. This also is a dangerous idea because it blames the survivors. The truth is that no one is responsible for mental illness. It’s an illness and the actions of others don’t cause it. The things that happened to Hannah could not have happened, she could have been the most popular, happiest girl in school, and she still might have died by suicide, because that’s how depression works. Clay is not responsible for what happens to Hannah. He is not to blame. And nothing he could have done would have saved her. And it’s important that everyone understand this. Depression and mental illness are very real, complicated diseases. If Hannah had diabetes and she died from the complications of diabetes, we would not blame Clay or suggest that if Clay had just told her he loved her she would have been okay. And that is true of mental health issues as well. It’s important that everyone watching this show understands that. And I’m not sure that everyone does and it is very concerning.

In the end, one of the arguments made against this show is that it romanticizes suicide, and I can see where that argument holds. I also want to acknowledge that for a lot of teens, this book and the show have been very positive and affirming. They state that it helped them by affirming that they are not alone in their feelings. So I hate to universally dismiss a show that my teens have had positive identification with. As I mentioned, there are strong reactions on both the pro and con side of this show, and I feel that they are both valid. I, personally, tend to be more in favor of the book and less in favor of the show for the reasons mentioned.

One thing that I think about over and over again is how everyone says that teens should be watching this show and talking about it with adults. The truth is, not every teen has an adult to talk about the show with. My teen could finish watching the show and I would talk to her about it, but not all teens have present and engaged parents. And yes, you could read the book in the classroom and talk about it, though I would remind us all that we are librarians and not social workers or psychologists. I don’t think you can watch the show in a classroom given the rating. So that leaves us with this: here is a show that everyone says teens need to watch and talk to an adult with to process, but many teens don’t have an adult to talk with and process this show. I can’t help but think about all those teens who have watched this show and don’t have a trusted, knowledgeable adult to help them process their thoughts and feelings about this.

We do talk about sexual violence and depression in my house. I have talked since the moment my kids were born with them about bodily autonomy and consent and healthy relationships. They know what rape is, and other forms of sexual violence. And we are very aware of mental health issues. My kids have seen me spend a couple of days in bed in a deep depressive state. They know that a year and a half ago my best friend died by suicide and they have seen the effects it has had on me. These are not issues I shy away from or try to protect my kids from. I just thought that this show was too much for them at this time. So we’re not watching it.

More Reading

Why teen mental health experts are focused on ‘13 Reasons Why

Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why‘ Carries Danger of Glorifying Suicide

13 Reasons Why‘ offers the wrong solution to teen struggles

Opinion: How ‘13 Reasons Why‘ gets suicide wrong

Does13 Reasons Why” Glorify Suicide? Mental Health Experts

13 Reasons Whydepicts a graphic suicide; experts say there’s a problem with that

13 Reasons Why” oversimplifies suicide

13 Reasons Why: A Survivor’s Perspective

This Master List of ‘13 Reasons Why‘ Trigger Warnings Is So Important

‘The Show “13 Reasons Why” Didn’t Trigger Me To Commit Suicide, But it Could Have

Comments

  1. Kimberly Bradley says:

    Thank you. As someone with a similar background to yours, I found the whole idea of both the book and the show troubling. I appreciate your post and have shared it.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. I had not read the book, but had heard and read a bit about it. When the tv series showed up on Netflix, I decided to watch the first episode. I did not make it through the episode as the whole thing appeared to be too superficial and not well acted.
    That aside, I agree with you about not glorifying suicide as the “perfect revenge”. We have a teenager who has struggled with depression and anxiety. Sadly, the adults at his school have not only failed to support him, they have exacerbated the situation.

    Back to the series–I do not see value it in. If the sexual violence is so graphic, that leads me to think that the producers are sensationalizing the issue.

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      Elizabeth,
      I am sorry to hear that the adults in school have failed. We have recently just experienced that here as well on a smaller scale and it is so bad for the kids involved.

      All my best,
      Karen

  3. Karen,
    Spending time with the kids in the Makerspace, and watching “13 Reasons Why” has brought a lot of things to my attention. The kids we work with have grown up in a completely different world than we did. Pictures can be taken and spread out, and then disappear, without a parents knowledge of them even existing. Or videos, like we have seen here in our space, can spread like wildfire, instantaneously. Something that hit me extremely hard with Hannah’s story, is that while all of this was preventable, her parents had absolutely no clue as to what was going on. Which makes me want parents to watch this with their teens, and open doors to discussions like, “What were you REALLY doing last Friday night?” or “Tell me something about the kids you are hanging around with.”
    I, like you, have dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts, and failed to speak to anyone about it because no one asked me why I was shutting myself off, and I also did not want to bother anyone with my “problems.” I didn’t have an open ended conversation with my parents about mental health and I really think the important thing to gain from this show and book, (taking the graphic nature and its discrepancies in dealing with mental health into account) is that there needs to be more talk about feelings, life, and mental health when it comes to teens.

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      Desiree,

      I agree, which is part of the reasons why I choose to talk publicly about my struggles on this blog and in my personal life – normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health issues is important. I hope that parents do and will continue to talk to teens about these issues, though we both know that many won’t.

      My only caution to librarians is to remember that we are not mental health professionals and to engage with our teens with this in mind. And I imagine this topic is an important reminder that we should find out what our response should be – both legally and as compassionate adults – if we feel that a teen expresses genuine suicidal thoughts with us.

      Karen

  4. Thank you, Karen. I agree with you that as librarians we need to figure out our response and make sure that students see help from professionals.

    I have not seen the show and I don’t know if I want to see it. I read the book 10 years ago and started to reread it this week and still think its a great book. As a school librarian and an individual who has dealt with depression and suicide most of my life- I thought the book did an excellent job in showing how suicide effects everyone. I saw Hannah’s tapes as a “suicide letter” as to why she was doing this. Its not just one person- its usually a lot of things that add up. Those issues are usually caused by lots of interactions with people, but the common denominator is how depression makes you interpret those experiences and interactions with people. For teenagers (and lots of people) we always want to find blame or whose responsible for it. Hannah’s reaction to everything she experienced and not having any professional mental health is to blame others. Its when you stop blaming others and start blaming yourself that you think suicide is the only option.
    I fear that censors will have watched the show or read all the criticism about the show and then censor the book. The book is insightful and helpful. It really helped me to realize how lost my family and friends and students would be without me in their lives.

  5. Nikki L. says:

    Thank you for a very thorough explanation of what you see and hear in both the book and the show. Our middle school library had to order extra copies of the book because so many kids were requesting it, and I do think the teachers have been using the book as a way to open dialogue about the many issues it touches on. We are not recommending the show for many of the same reasons you listed. I understand from a creative perspective why the producers decided to show things so graphically, but as a librarian, parent, and person, I don’t want anyone I care about watching any of that violence. No one knows how something like that is going to hit them until they see it, and then it’s too late to stop whatever harm may happen. Thanks again for a frank and open discussion.

  6. My high school book club read this book. The kids loved it. I did not like it at all. It was much too graphic for me and I am not a prude. I haven’t watched the tv show. I’m not sure that I want to.

  7. The reality is that you cannot block out adversity for your teen. The only way forward is to prepare them to cope with difficult issues, from homosexuality to depression and suicide. The more we talk with our teens, the more we encourage healthy coping strategies.

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