Note: I am not an expert in drug or alcohol counseling. I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or any other kind of counselor. I do not have any expertise in assisting suicidal individuals. All I am is a parent, a teacher, a woman, and a human with more empathy than I can stand sometimes.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why since its release at the end of March. As someone who read the book a number of years ago, I was pleased to find that this important story was being brought to life. I remember reading the book and thinking how important it was in the lessons it taught. That’s why I was glad to see it was being made into a series; I knew those messages could reach a really wide audience.
Since the controversy really reached a fever pitch with the release of the series, I guess I’ll focus in that instead of the book, although that ends up on banned/challenged lists pretty regularly.
The very things that people object to in the series are the very things that I think make the series so important and powerful. Here are the things I think the series teaches us:
- Suicide is not a solution.
- Suicide is not glamorous.
- Suicide is not romantic.
- Suicide is not beautiful.
- Kids, especially teens, go through things that adults have no concept of at all.
- Drugs and alcohol don’t make problems go away.
- Sexting is a real problem and a real threat.
- Slut shaming and victim blaming are real, and it is perpetrated by just as many females as males.
- The concept of consent for sex is frighteningly unclear for both males and females.
- Schools and teachers can play a key role in teaching teens about all of the above points.
These are all things that people have raised objections to with this series. My thoughts, for what they are worth:
- This series does not do anything to show suicide in a positive light in any way, shape, or form. We know from the very first minute of episode one what Hannah is going to do. We all wish from that very first minute that it won;t end that way. Never once is there a message that Hannah did the right thing by killing herself. Always, always, the viewer wants desperately for Hannah to get help. I sometimes found myself wishing I could help her — and she’s a fictional character. Suicide is not glamorized, romanticized, or beautified at all. Instead, it is shown as sad, lonely, terrifying, and preventable. Viewers see all the places where Hannah could have gotten help if only someone had taken the time to just dig a little deeper, pry into her life a little bit.
- The graphic nature of the rapes and Hannah’s suicide are not gratuitous. Instead, they should be seen for what they are: glossed over re-enactments of horrific things that happen in real life. To anyone who says those scenes are too graphic and horrible to watch, I say how horrible would it be to experience these things in real life? For most of us, it is unimaginable. I have never been raped, but I’m betting my imagination isn’t remotely close to how terrifying it really is. I’ve never attempted suicide or even felt suicidal, but I’m betting my imagination isn’t even close to how miserable one must feel, how alone and hopeless one must feel to make an attempt, much less a successful attempt. Look away from these scenes if you must when watching the series; just be glad you don’t have to live them personally.
- Hannah’s suicide scene is not a how-to video. To me, it seemed to be more of a why-not-to video. If anyone actually thought there might be some beauty, glamour, or romance in it, well, I think that went right out the window after watching that scene.
Now, a couple caveats.
- Of course this should not be watched by everyone. I have a nephew who is in 3rd grade. No way in hell should he watch this. But a middle school kid or a high school kid? I’ve got no issues with kids that age watching this series — but here’s the catch: they need to have someone to watch it with them and talk with them about it. For these powerful messages to really take root, they’ve got to be helped along. Parents can do that. What parent DOESN’T want their kids to learn that suicide is a terrible choice? What parent DOESN’T want their son or daughter to understand what real consent for sex looks like? What parent DOESN’T want to tell their teens that using drugs or alcohol to numb the pain of life’s problems isn’t a real solution?
- Of course this shouldn’t be watched by people who are in such a mental or emotional state that they are already contemplating suicide. Once someone is seriously considering this, they are clearly not thinking clearly or rationally anymore. I’m guessing that unless you’ve been in that state, you can’t figure out how suicide makes any sense at all. Watching this series is not going to give anyone a new idea. Nobody is going to decide that suicide is a great plan after watching this. But for someone who has already started to head down that road of thought, it might not come across as the tragic story it is.
- If parents don’t want to help their kids learn some of these tough lessons, schools can do it. There are trained professionals in schools who can help kids navigate these situations. It’s not bad for schools to let kids know that suicide is not a good choice, or that using drugs is dangerous, or that a girl who is unconscious is unable to consent to sex. I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want messages like this reinforced as often as possible.
- Parents always have the right to decide what is appropriate fir their kids to see or experience. Parents who decide their 11 year old is too young to watch the series or are concerned about how watching it might impact their 16 year old daughter who was a victim of date rape last summer have legitimate concerns. But what I can’t understand is people who think the series is offensive or dirty, and that’s why they don;t want their kids to watch it. Parents who ignore the fact that some teens drink alcohol, do drugs, are bullied or otherwise victimized, or find themselves in sexual situations — consensual and non-consensual — do their kids zero favors.
The teenage years are the ones where kids start to try out their adult behaviors. What they learn carries over into their adult lives. The messages that can be found in 13 Reasons Why are powerful and impactful, but they can be found in other places, too. If you don’t want to use this series as a jumping off point to start a dialogue, then find something else. But please don’t ignore it or sweep it aside. And don’t criticize parents who do see value in sharing the lessons from this series with their kids.
Common Sense Media often has information that is worth checking out. Check out what they have to say about this series.
There is also a blog post on Education Week that is worth reading. It offers multiple perspectives on the series. It’s a long read but worth the time. I believe that a subscription to Ed Week is not necessary to read this post.
Before I comment, know that I haven’t read the book or watched the series. Since our daughter lives with a severe mental illness, she won’t be watching it (just as you recommend in your post).
It’s a very challenging topic. Our daughter knew to come for help after reading a book on an alternate reading list for a high school class…symptoms she could not make sense of were symptoms the main character experienced…and we’re so grateful for the book. However, other books (and movies, music, television shows) might tackle the same subject matter but not as responsibly…triggering and/or exacerbating her symptoms. So I am glad that you stress that parents need to be actively involved. Considering our circumstances, we will be avoiding it…but I think you have written a very thoughtful and insightful post from your perspective. I really appreciate your post.
Thank you for sharing your comment. It’s one thing for parents not to want their kids to read this book or see the series because they know it could be problematic for their child (as it seems to be in your case), but another one altogether if parents just want to sweep topics like this under the rug because they’re unpleasant to deal with or they think their kids don’t need to know about such things. I firmly believe the best way to protect my child is to be involved in her life and help guide her through difficult situations and have frank conversations with her. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.