“13 Reasons Why” Can Be A Jumping-Off Point To Discuss Real Issues Facing Teens
As an NYC therapist who works with teens, I couldn’t ignore the polarized response to the depiction of teens, mental health and suicide in Netflix’s show 13 Reasons Why. The show centers around high school junior Hannah Baker who leaves thirteen tapes to thirteen people, explaining what led up to the day she killed herself. At times painful to watch, 13 Reasons Why follows Hannah’s friend Clay as he listens to these tapes, relives her last year or so of high school, and revisits what happened to her and those that affected her.
Since its debut in May, there have been a lot of folks in the mental health, school counseling, education, and suicide prevention world saying this show grossly portrays suicide and is unrealistic. If you’re suffering, they say, don’t get too close to this show. Recently finishing the series myself, I get really upset at the defensiveness of these responses–they seem to want to box pain up.
Of course, I don’t want any of my teen patients or any teen (or person) to commit suicide, but the way I see it is: if a teen is in pain, isolated, lonely and seething, they will find a way to view this show and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, as a therapist, I see 13 Reasons Why as a possible jumping-off point to get closer to the issues teens are dealing with on a regular basis–so much so that I’ve highlighted 13 ways 13 Reasons Why expands the conversation. I’ve been posting one a day for the past 13 days, but here is the full list:
13 Reasons Why doesn’t hide from suicide. It throws viewers right in to hopefully scare suicidal thoughts out of teens. Ultimately, the show depicts suicide as a real thing teens do, as well as think about and don’t do. Several characters, apart from Hannah, think about suicide both pre-and post-Hannah’s death. The show also accurately addresses the way teens often view suicide, which is in the moment and as a reaction when they see no other way out or to make the pain stop. Teens very often think in absolutes rather than seeing multiple options. This can mean an absolute act like suicide is something that can float around in their brains.
2. Rape And Sexual Assault
The show is spot-on about what goes down with rape and sexual assault with teens. From Jessica’s rape when she was passed-out drunk to Hannah’s cornered rape in a pool after a party to Marcus trying to cop a feel on a first date with Hannah, all these situations happen in high school. Mostly, I think parents are scared to talk about rape and sexual assault as real for teens. But, I think the best thing a parent can do to teach their teen about sexual safety (even after a rape or assault) is to allow space to talk about it. Teens also need to talk to each other. When teens talk about rape or sexual assault, there is a sense of community rather than isolation around rape or sexual assault.
Teens often think high school is supposed to be the best time of their lives, but it is often a time in which we are struggling to connect or feel there is no one to connect to. Even the popular kids in 13 Reasons Why live in isolation. For instance, Jessica’s popularity in high school is growing, but she is isolated around her rape. She’s left alone wondering what in the world happened to her. On the show, no one talks together as a community about things being so hard. Everyone is trying to “save face” or tries to talk, but finds talking doesn’t get them what they want (popularity, sex, relationships, respect, etc.).
Bullying is talked about so much it has almost lost its meaning in overuse. Bullying, to me, means totally denouncing another’s personhood by either direct or indirect violence. Words and hands can both be violent. 13 Reasons Why helps viewers see the many forms bullying can take from cyberbullying to a denigrating list that circulates around school to gossip to shunning to traumatic ways dates can look.
5. Social media as a weapon
In the series, social media becomes the weapon of choice. For example, Hannah kisses a classmate Courtney, a moment, which was, unbeknownst to them, caught in a photograph. After the photo is posted on social media and circulated through the school, they both feel so exposed that Courtney shuts Hannah out as a means of protecting herself. In my teen therapy practice, I see a lot of teens similarly trying to grapple with the reality of social media, which sometimes feels more real than our day-to-day relationships. It hits so deeply, in particular, because teens can revisit the photo, message or thread. Social media doesn’t sleep or rest–it is relentless.
6. Ever-changing Social Status And Friendships
Month to month or year to year as a teen, your social status and friend group can change. This often happens without warning or a full discussion. Sometimes teens don’t realize this can change frequently–everything seems so permanent when you’re a teen. Many characters in the show struggle with how they weren’t there for Hannah, whether they were pushed away or grew apart from her. To be a friend when we are pushed away is to be a constant. It’s important to check-in even when knowing they may push us away.
7. Drinking And Drugs
Almost every episode features alcohol or drugs, which is trying to push how much of this really happens. Some of it parents know about and some of it they don’t. Alcohol and drugs in the show are used both as a way to party and to shut things out. With Jessica, she hides bottles of liquor under her bed to cope with her rape, but it is also what that put her at risk. Simply, the show depicts that no one at this age knows how to use alcohol or drugs with moderation. This is a common story. Even if something major doesn’t happen, most people have had that moment in high school where they didn’t know their limit.
8. Distant Parents Or Family
Parents in the show check in with their kids, more as a way of catching up rather than being relational. For example, both Hannah and Clay’s parents are loving but distant. The love they have for their children is clear, but both sets of parents are far from what is going on with their teens at school and in their daily lives. The relation between teens and parents changes at this time of life, making it, in some ways, harder to be close to your kid. Parents need to find a new type of closeness. This can mean moving away from managing and teaching a middle school-age child to letting your teen come to you with stuff, while still finding ways to let them know you’re there.
9. Parents, Check Your Shit To Take Care Of Your Teen
Similarly, Hannah’s parents are so worried about their struggling drug store business that they don’t slow down to see her suffering. Dealing with their own crisis, they needed her to be “ok,” but she was far from it. The show does a good job of showing how when things get scary or concerning with a teen, it’s time for parents and other family to check your shit, meaning reflect on how you have been present (or not), what distracts you, and if you can take time for your teens. Talk with your partner, friend, brother, sister, therapist–anyone but your kid–about your personal and professional stuff. Making the time and space to just let your teens talk is taking care of them.
10. When School Counselors Aren’t Enough Or The Right Fit
Mr. Porter, the school counselor in 13 Reasons Why, was depicted as a good guy with too much on his plate so he can’t slow down to notice Hannah’s pain or the pain of the other students. A school counselor, in many ways, works for the school and not the kids, which is the difference between a counselor and a therapist. They can’t build a relationship or get close to a teen when they’re trying to serve an entire school. Oftentimes, students who are doing poorly or acting out become a bigger priority than those who are quiet, depressed or feeling isolated.
11. Sometimes Words Aren’t Enough
Teens’ brains are rapidly developing and their bodies are ever-changing, which means they might say something they don’t really mean and they might need us to “follow them” or take action. At the end of the show, Hannah wanted Clay and Mr. Porter to go after her, but she didn’t have the words to say, “Don’t leave me. I’m feeling scared and alone and hopeless.” Mr. Porter thought their final meeting was about rape, but, for Hannah, it was about conveying, “Stop me. Help me.” The tough part is we do need the words to go after someone, but if we learn from the show, sometimes we need to push past the words someone is saying to really see them and what they need.
12. How To Be Close With Pain
The adults in the show don’t seem to know how to get close to pain–their own or their kids’. Everything seems so internalized. However, the show portrays how to be close with pain through the relationship between Clay and Tony, who controls the listening of the tapes. Clay deals with his own internal process of pain while listening and basically falls apart. But, Tony sees this and helps Clay, guiding him through listening to his own tape. Tony is, in a sense, an escort through the pain, letting both Clay and us, as viewers, know it will be okay. It’s a perfect illustration of how to be with someone’s pain.
13. Teen Mental Health Is More Than Just Being Hormonal
Often with teens, we want their mental health to be hormonal because that means it’s just a phase that will pass without needing intervention. But teens’ emotional and mental health is real and for a teen, there are both internal and external factors. The show looks at both. At one point, Tony describes, “Hannah was a lot.” This might indicate there was more than just social isolation and the depicted events going on. Maybe she had depression and/or anxiety, which means her social experiences may have affected her in different, more significant ways. In my practice, parents call in because a teen is being disruptive or not stopping a behavior. Often there is more than meets the eye. There is always something behind the behavior whether anxiety, trauma, depression, etc. and they need someone to get close to this–close to the pain, close to what is going on, and close to them.