Note: This post is intended to be a resource for parents, educators, and students, instead of a personal reflection. If you would like to hear my personal feelings about 13 Reasons Why or engage in a discussion about difficult topics in young adult literature, I invite you to contact me privately via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I decided to write a post about pop culture phenomenon 13 Reasons Why, I started by Googling. I began with a simple search term: “13 Reasons Why“. I received about 57,000,000 results in .050 seconds, including pages of websites, recent news results, videos, and images. That seemed overwhelming – I tried again. “13 Reasons Why Jay Asher Netflix“. 408,000 results in 0.97 seconds. News articles of teen suicide statistics and contagion warnings. Images of impossibly beautiful crying girls, cemeteries, and painted cassette tapes. It seems like the whole world is fixated on 13 Reasons Why. And unfortunately, this obsession doesn’t come with an age limit.
Originally a novel published in 2007 by first-time author Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker through the reactions of her classmates in the wake of her recent suicide. Here is a plot description from Amazon.com:
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker—his classmate and crush—who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.
Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.
13 Reasons Why spent eight straight years on the international bestseller list. It has been printed in 35 different languages. After soaring to international popularity, 13 Reasons Why was pitched to Netflix by pop superstar Selena Gomez (who served as executive producer) and adapted into a mini-series. The series was released earlier this year and sources say that it is already the most watched Netflix release of all time. It follows the plotline of the book, but lets it unfold more slowly, delving more deeply into characters’ backstories and feelings. The ever-reliable Common Sense Media recommends the 13 Reasons Why Netflix series for ages 16+; but because it is on Netflix, the series does not require an ID, password, or parent permission. It can be accessed by any Netflix user at any time.
Reactions to the series have been diverse. Some praise 13 Reasons Why for bringing issues of mental health and teen suicide to the forefront, while others say that the show is more dangerous than helpful. In an article titled 13 Reasons Why: Should Parents Be Concerned About This Netflix Series?* from 700Childrens.NationwideChildrens.org, author John Ackerman writes,
The show’s release has led to much conversation and social media buzz about teen suicide, especially among middle and high-schoolers. On the surface, this appears positive. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-34 year-olds. Although it can be uncomfortable, having direct, genuine conversations with our kids about suicide is healthy and potentially life-saving.
The myth that these discussions cause someone to become suicidal has been debunked. We know that silence and stigma prevents those at risk from reaching out for much needed support. Suicide is a major public health issue that deserves a thoughtful national dialogue.
Unfortunately, 13 Reasons Why misses the mark in critical ways to better understand and address the devastating impact of teen suicide. Despite being touted by some as a “life-saving” work, 13RW could do more harm than good by disregarding best practices in media portrayals of suicide. Many individuals who have personal experience with suicide, as well as suicide prevention advocates, have serious concerns about the way suicide is portrayed in 13RW.
*Read more of this article from 700Childrens.nationwide.org by following the first link in the resource list below.
No matter your point of view, one thing is certain – both the book and the series are prominently advertised and discussed, and most students are exposed to it in one way or another. A headline from Entertainment Weekly declares that 13 Reasons Why is already the “Most Tweeted About Show of 2017“; I was shocked to hear fourth graders whispering the title last week. Both the book and the show are dark and difficult, discussing topics like sexual assault and rape, alcohol abuse, drug use, bullying, degradation of women, and self-mutilation. These topics are written about graphically in the text and are prevalent in the series (episodes show rape, substance abuse, and the actual act of suicide in shocking detail). The story has become an international juggernaut, and even those who choose not to read or watch are likely to be drawn into conversation. Young people everywhere are experiencing 13 Reasons Why – some without their parents’ knowledge or approval.
The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide states that “contrary to myth, talking about suicide CANNOT plant the idea in someone’s head! It actually can open up communication about a topic that is often kept a secret. […] You also give your child permission to bring up the subject again in the future.” (Talking to Your Teen about Suicide, STPS). The best way to know what your child is thinking about a book or show is to experience it with them. Reading or watching 13 Reasons Why with the young people in your life can be a powerful way to connect and open a dialogue about bullying, relationships, depression, substance abuse, and countless other topics. It might feel counterproductive to be sharing something so controversial and graphic with your child, but Hannah’s story can be a jumping off point for a discussion about mental health and many of the other hardships that often plague young adults in middle and high school.
Not sure where to start? The following list of resources can help to jumpstart and guide a discussion about 13 Reasons Why:
- 13 Reasons Why: Should Parents Be Concerned About This Netflix Series?: An article from 700 Children’s, a pediatric hospital and research center, that lists clear strengths and weaknesses to sharing 13 Reasons Why. I appreciated this unbiased review from the point of view of a health professional. Includes resources and links to online communities for teens and their parents.
- Responding to 13 Reasons Why: An article written by a school counselor preparing to discuss the story with her students. Includes a list of concerns surrounding the Netflix series, and resources for discussion and reflection.
- Either Talk to Your Kid about Suicide or 13 Reasons Why Will: Author, speaker, and mental health professional Ross Szabo offers an article with suggestions to take your conversations beyond just reactions to the show. His guidelines help to open communication lines and develop meaningful, lasting dialogues about mental health.
- Responding to 13 Reasons Why: An Interactive Q&A Discussion: An hour long podcast presented by a team of mental health professionals. Aimed at educators, parents, and anyone interested in mental health.
- 13 Reasons Why Talking Points: Looking to talk to your child about 13 Reasons Why, but not sure where to start? These talking points include conversation starters, things that the Netflix series may have missed or gotten wrong, and resources for those struggling with suicidal thoughts.
- 13 Reasons Why: Considerations for Educators: It may be aimed at educators, but this article also includes guidance for families, myths and facts about suicide, and resources for those struggling with suicidal thoughts.
- If you are struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, or are looking to get involved with a supportive community, check below for a list of online and phone resources that may be helpful.
Sometimes the most difficult conversations are the most necessary and rewarding. I hope that you find these resources helpful. No conversation is too small or too late to matter. Reach out to me any time with questions, concerns, or resources to add to this list.
Are you or someone you loves struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide? Ask for help. Find a trusted adult to speak to or reach out anonymously by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or texting “START” to 741741. Online resources like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Your Life Your Voice, and The Trevor Project are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.