by Morgan Cohen, MSW, LGSW
I’m sure most of you have heard by now about the show “13 Reasons Why.” If not, I will give you the 411 on the controversial show that is causing a media frenzy. In a nutshell, the Netflix show is about a high school student, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and the aftermath of it all. Hannah leaves behind 13 tapes discussing why she made the final decision that she did. The show starts and ends with Clay Jensen, a fellow student of Hannah’s, receiving and listening through all the tapes and his reaction to what Hannah has to say. The show has gained a lot of controversy over its graphic nature and lots of teenagers are watching it and talking about it. I have recently just finished watching the 13, 50-minute episodes in order to gain some insight as a practicing therapist in the field. If you are considering watching it or letting your teenage daughter watch it, I have come up with some thoughts and pointers that might help you approach the topic at home.
1 – The show can be found on Netflix and is rated TV-Mature. The show is pretty graphic: There is cursing, drugs, alcohol, some mild nudity, it shows sexual assault and rape (although there is no nudity in those particular scenes) as well as Hannah cutting her wrists as she commits suicide. At the end of the 13 episodes, there is an additional informational episode that shows interviews with the cast as well as the writers and producers of the show. They explain why they show what they did. I found this to be very insightful and helpful to me, personally, to neutralize my emotional reaction to the show. I recommend watching this additional episode as well if you decide to watch the entire show.
2 – Netflix does display trigger warnings at the beginning of the series and before certain episodes. Although these are clearly there, I honestly did not even read them just because I didn’t think to. I personally think a video/visual warning would be more effective than words on a screen. Until that happens, I strongly recommend reading the warnings at the beginning of each episode so you know what kind of graphic scenes to expect.
3 – The show is fiction but covers a lot of real life themes that are exaggerated. If you really examine Hannah’s life, this poor girl has really had some bad luck and always seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
4 – The show is very dark and shows a side of suicide that we don’t get to see or really hear about. Although I understand why the show is controversial, I also understand the importance of the topic. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among individuals between ages 10-14 and the second leading cause of death among individual between ages 15-34. Spreading awareness and understanding can hopefully change these numbers.
5 – I found myself having an emotional reaction to Hannah and her struggle to reach out for help. It was frustrating for me as an adult that has a better grasp on emotions in general but I know this picture can be very true for a teenager experiencing a deep depression. I think this shows how confusing and difficult it can be for someone to communicate how they feel. Especially for a teenager. Emotions are very complicated and knowing how to put into words how you feel and then share that with someone can be very scary.
6 – One thing I did not particularly like about the show is how it portrays a “blame game.” Granted this is very exaggerated, however, in my opinion, everyone makes their own choices. At the end of the day, Hannah made her choice. Yes, everyone could have done things differently to help her but Hannah could have done some things differently herself. Everyone has a responsibility to own. One thing I do like about the show is the overall tone of how we need to treat each other better. That is something we can all work on.
7 – I believe the school guidance counselor failed Hannah the most when it came down to her finally trying to reach out and get help. As a practicing therapist, I was horrified at how he handled their last meeting together. My fear is that teenagers watching this now will walk away from this show thinking that adults in the helping field are clueless and incompetent and that is just not the case in reality. This was just a bad, exaggerated example of someone who had no idea how to approach such a topic.
8 – A second season is in the works and is set to be released on Netflix in 2018.
9 – The show is based on a book written by Jay Asher. The show and the book are very different from what I have researched. I have not read the book but from what I hear, the book is not as graphic as the show. In fact, the way that Hannah actually commits suicide is totally different in the book. I have talked to some families where they have chosen to read the book together with their teenage daughter instead of watching the show.
10 – If you do choose to watch the show or let your daughter watch it, I recommend NOT binge watching it! Maybe watch one episode a night and then talk about it together after you watch it. Any more than one episode at a time can get very emotionally draining.
11 – If you or your teenage daughter has a history of depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviors, suicide thoughts or attempts, this is NOT the show to be watching! The show is not meant to be hopeful.
12 – Chances are your teenage daughter has already seen it or is planning to watch it with friends and they are talking about it. I suggest approaching the show with an open mind and being open to watching it or reading the book together in a safe environment.
13 – Finally, the warning signs. Look out for individuals who look or appear to be extremely sad, have loss of motivation, loss of interest in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, giving belongings away, concerning statements such as “Life just isn’t worth it anymore,” or “My friends and family would be better off without me.” Of course this list could look differently for different people and sometimes the signs aren’t so cut and dry. If you have concerns for anyone you know, it never hurts to ask them the difficult question and help them reach out for professional help.
Overall, I think the show has plenty of pros and cons, just like any other show, however, the bigger themes presented make for very important conversations that need to take place and it appears the show has accomplished what it has set out to do.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing signs and symptoms of depression and/or thinking about suicide, please reach out to someone and get help. The suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255 or go to your nearest hospital to be evaluated. Finding a therapist in your area who works with teens struggling with depression is an important step as well: we are here for you!