The raw, powerful Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, has generated a fair bit of discussion and controversy. Based on a novel with the same title, the series tells the story of a girl, Hannah, who leaves behind tapes explaining the 13 reasons why she committed suicide. The experiences of Hannah and other students at Liberty High School include bullying, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment and assault, depression and suicide.
WHY SHOULD WE PAY ATTENTION?
The author of 13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher, wanted to spark a discussion about suicide, which is important given that suicide is one of the leading causes of death among teenagers. Many scenes, including rape and suicide, are intentionally graphic and disturbing to paint an honest picture. Parents may object to these scenes as well as those with strong language, underage drinking, and drug use, but it would be a mistake to get stuck there.
Like it or not, our young people are watching this series; it speaks to them in powerful ways. They need to be able to process what they are seeing with adults who are prepared to engage in the discussion. However, be warned that this series could be very triggering for those with a trauma history, or those who know someone who committed suicide.
The documentary at the end of the series makes several important points. For example, many adults will find it difficult to relate because we did not have internet and social media.
Hannah’s downward spiral starts with a compromising photo that was passed around the school as a “joke.” In a nanosecond, her reputation was ruined. She became an object of scorn and was “slut-shamed” even though the picture was taken out of context. From there, many of the boys in the school felt free to treat her and talk to her in sexually demeaning ways.
Another point is that Hannah’s reactions were classic for someone who has experienced trauma. She often froze, becoming numb and disconnected, engaging in behavior that could be mistaken for tacit compliance. Hannah eventually becomes so wounded and guarded that even when good people try to reach out to her, she remains closed to their efforts. In the end, feeling hopeless and alone, she takes her own life.
HOW DOES THE SHOW RELATE TO OUR CHILDREN?
Cyber-bullying is a 24/7 possibility for today’s students, with no place to escape for safety. Sexual harassment is depressingly common. One teenager I spoke with said she thought the story was realistic, and represented what many high school students are exposed to, even if they don’t experience it directly.
The issues raised in 13 Reasons Why are disturbing and difficult to talk about: sexual objectification and harassment, victim-blaming, and the “guy-code” that makes good guys look the other way and say nothing. Many of the scenes were eerily similar to the stories I’ve heard from clients.
It’s important to understand the mind of a teenager while discussing 13 Reasons Why. Adolescent brains are still developing; logical adult insight and foresight is not yet available to them. Teenagers are often impulsive and emotionally driven. For them, misery feels like it will go on forever.
It was maddening to watch the teens in the show try to solve their dilemmas on their own, without adult input. More than once I found myself exasperated and yelling, “Tell your parents! Let them help you!”
Sometimes our kids won’t talk to us because they want to avoid lectures and judgment, but often they just don’t know how to put what they are experiencing into words. They feel like they “should” be able to figure things out, and often the only thing we adults see is the push-pull of ‘leave me alone but please help me’! We need to let them know their pain matters and that it is ok to need help, even if they are not sure how to explain what is going on. We need to get our kids talking to us.
START A DIALOGUE
To that end, I have created some questions, with input from social workers, teachers, therapists, and teens, to get the discussion started. Don’t feel the need to ask everything. Just keep things open-ended and listen.
- What did you think of 13 Reasons Why? Was it realistic?
- What do you think of Hannah’s decision to tell her story?
- What would you do if you were in Hannah’s shoes?
- What do you think of Hannah’s 13 reasons?
- How is it that people kept missing her hints?
- Who do you think was hurt by Hannah’s suicide? Do you think Hannah intended to hurt those people?
- Some people think 13 Reasons Why glorifies suicide. What do you think?
- Who were the people who cared about Hannah? Why do you think she wasn’t able to receive that love?
- What could Hannah have done differently to get people to see how badly hurt she was? How can kids talk about their pain and need for help?
- What makes it hard to tell adults?
- What could the adults have done differently that would have been more helpful?
- How would you know if a friend was in trouble?
- Would you know where to get help if something like what happened to Hannah happened to you or someone you knew ? (Parents, teachers, counselors, hotlines, etc.)
- Who are the Hannahs in your school?
- How would you describe Bryce? How did he justify raping the two girls? What made it possible for him to get away with it?
- What do you think Bryce would have done if Hannah hadn’t told about the rape and Clay hadn’t forced a confession? (Unfortunately, predators often have many victims and don’t stop until they have consequences.)
- Do you think it is OK to have sex with someone who is passed out/drunk?
- What does it mean to get consent? How should someone make sure they have consent?
- If you could re-write the ending, what would be different?
As uncomfortable as it is, we need to talk about this. There’s a saying in therapy circles that if we don’t talk it out, we will act it out.
Over and over the story drives home the point that the smallest gesture can have a profound and wide-reaching impact, either for good or bad. Zach, the school’s star basketball player muses, “One thing. If one thing had gone differently somewhere along the line, maybe none of this would have happened.”
Maybe an honest conversation is the place to start.
It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow. (~Clay from 13 Reasons Why)
**If you are in an emergency and need immediate help, call 911 or go to your local emergency room. If you are struggling with depression and want help, we would be happy to set up a counseling appointment with you by calling 225-341-4147.