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Ready or not, here it comes. A wildly popular new Netflix series has parents and teens talking about difficult subjects. And suicide experts issuing strong warnings.
In “Thirteen Reasons Why,” 17-year-old Hannah commits suicide and leaves tapes for the people who drove her to do it. In each episode of the show, another tale of betrayal unfolds. The characters portrayed as the “reasons” for her death are instructed to listen to the tapes and pass them on to the next person. If they fail, a duplicate set of the tapes will be released to the public.
Most of the characters are nuanced, with admirable qualities but also human flaws. In most instances, there is a critical moment when each character misses the chance to rise to the occasion and act with kindness and courage. For a few, moral depravity rules the day. As a result, Hannah undergoes bullying, stalking, repeated betrayal by “friends,” and rape.
As one Evanston parent put it, “This is a story about everything going wrong.”
The show is receiving both praise and criticism: critical praise for being the best show Netflix has produced to date as well as recognition for bringing difficult topics out in the open – and criticism for its explicit sex and violence as well as for its potential impact on vulnerable tweens and teens.
Based on the international bestselling novel by Jay Asher, the “Thirteen Reasons” series heightens the dramatic impact of the original story with more explicit detail in the two rape scenes and a disturbingly graphic suicide scene. There are also profanity, teen drinking, and marijuana use.
Both parents and teens praise the series as a cautionary tale about harmful decisions teens can make and the unflinching consequences. Well acted and well written, “Thirteen Reasons” sheds light on the real dangers and moral dilemmas faced by teens in their everyday lives. The realistic rendering of so many tough issues can help prompt meaningful discussion among teens and their parents.
Kaethe Morris Hoffer is an Evanston mother and the Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, an organization that advocates for victims of sexual trauma. Ms. Morris Hoffer thinks that the show can be a useful tool for parents to talk about difficult subjects. She also thinks the rape scenes in “Thirteen Reasons” help to dispel the conventional notion that “rape looks like a brawl from the outside.” She said, “Both of the rapes demonstrate the ways in which rape is profoundly different from consensual sex and yet so similar to sex. This helps decimate the mythology about what rape looks like.”
At a time when, for example, there is such a pervasive problem with campus sexual assault, and “schools have the same response to sexual assault that we had 10 years ago in the military,” said Ms. Morris Hoffer, this is a critical issue.
Another Evanston mother said her 15-year-old daughter liked the way the show addressed this very serious issue. Her daughter said, “a lot of teen shows and movies gloss over sexual interactions.”
Similarly, a 17-year-old boy said, “It does a great job of showcasing bullying, both its brutality and its pervasiveness.” He saw it as “a good message to bullies for them to understand how devastating their behavior is or can be.”
Evanston mother Shannon Cahill thought the show was hyper-realistic about the social pressure among different peer groups. This led to a discussion with her high-school-age kids about the different groups at Evanston Township High School. She asked them, “What’s your experience at ETHS? Is there that kind of bullying?” Both of her high schoolers said they feel there’s a place or a group for everyone, and you can decide if and how you want to fit in.”
Others wish the Pandora’s box had never been opened. They say the popularity of the show makes it almost impossible to control a child’s exposure to its potentially traumatic subject matter in this age of ubiquitous media. Several Evanston parents said their older children warned younger siblings not to watch the series. One 15-year-old even admonished her mother for watching it because “it glorifies suicide and makes it look cool.”
Kathryn Grant, Professor of Psychology at DePaul University and an Evanston mother, said, “It’s really better to talk with your teens about the media [they’re exposed to] than it is to outlaw it outright – talking with them has better outcomes.”
Evanston mother Diane Lequar said the book was assigned in her daughter’s seventh-grade book club, and she made a point of talking to her daughter about the story. Particularly with the heightened material in the new show, Ms. Lequar said, she is “most concerned about the impact on kids who don’t have a family or a community support group to help them understand it.”
Ms. Morris Hoffer said she felt the series “conveyed some powerful and complicated truths” and that “it’s critical that kids don’t watch it alone.”
And mental health professionals say it is dangerous material for teens who suffer from depression and suicidal ideation. It is a revenge fantasy, they say, in which suicide is modeled as a powerful act that shows people the error of their ways. They also say the series is irresponsible for depicting Hannah’s suicide.
With suicide the second leading cause of death for teens in the United States today, suicide prevention organizations are working to educate the public. The website for Erika’s Lighthouse in Winnetka says “up to 20% of teens will suffer from at least one depressive episode before they reach adulthood.” A blog on that website makes a thorough critique of the mental health issues in the show, and thoroughly explains the lost opportunities to educate the public on teen depression and suicide.
Courtney Collins of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in Chicago said, “The way it’s portrayed is insensitive about suicide, and we don’t want it to be mimicked.” The AFSP has issued information sheets for parents to talk about the “Thirteen Reasons” series and the realities of suicide. An AFSP fact sheet entitled, “Some Thoughts About Thirteen Reasons Why,” details some of the important information missing from the show.
Of greatest concern? A contagion effect will prompt vulnerable teens to follow in Hannah’s footsteps, in spite of the best intentions of the filmmakers.
The AFSP fact sheet also states, “In the context of the series, the act of suicide is glorified by the main character, and presented as an effective way to get messages across to those left behind. However, in reality, suicide is never a solution. Suicide is complex and most often occurs when health, environmental, and social factors are all present, and rarely is it as simple as ‘reasons’ one can pin on other people’s behavior or life events.”
In “Thirteen Reasons,” Hannah does not receive any helpful information or any hope. Nor does the show highlight the importance of understanding the underlying mental illness. And the adults who do witness the warning signs of suicidal thinking completely miss the opportunity to help.
“Suicide is preventable. There are resources out there,” said Ms. Collins. “The first thing that people contemplating suicide need to know is that others have been in similar situations and have gone on to live successful lives.”
According to the AFSP fact sheet, “It’s also important for young people to know that there are caring, trustworthy adults who can help. By highlighting success stories or working through life challenges and mental health problems, we model pathways each of us can find to survive and thrive.”
“It makes it seem like people who have depression are crazy. There is no helpful attitude to inspire people to come forward to ask for help. The point of the show is to help, but it simply triggers.”
One 17-year-old ETHS student said, “Clearly, the writer has never experienced depression in their life. They show depression as someone who is really sensitive. It’s not helpful to depict it this way,” she said. “It makes it seem like people who have depression are crazy. There is no helpful attitude to inspire people to come forward to ask for help. The point of the show is to help, but it simply triggers.”
Another ETHS student, 15 years old, said she thought that Hannah had a lot of issues that were just skimmed over. She felt it was obvious that Hannah has had issues with other kids in the past and that she came to the new school for a fresh start.
Ms. Morris Hoffer said, “It’s out there, and parents need to figure out how they want to think about it. Burying your head in the sand leaves your kids really vulnerable.”