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Reading between the Lines: Why You Should Pay Attention to 13 Reasons Why


For some, entertainment is an escape from our daily lives, but for many others entertainment is a sensationalized account of real issues we may face. “13 Reasons Why” originally published as a young adult novel, was subsequently adapted into a series by Netflix. The series chronicles the life and subsequent suicide of teenager Hannah Baker. In the series, Hannah posthumously provides 13 cassette tapes to fellow teenagers she has come in contact with, detailing the trauma she and others endured in the weeks prior to her death.

The dark turn of the show may make it difficult for some viewers to watch, covering topics such as drug abuse, sexual assault, bullying, and suicide. While the show is effective in pulling the viewer in, it does little to prepare the viewer for what’s to come, which begs the question: when is it appropriate to address the topics of sexual abuse and suicide?

To answer this question, it is first essential that parents and educators become familiar with the content described in this series, thus providing a basis for future conversations. What “13 Reasons Why” has accomplished is opening the dialogue surrounding assault and suicide between adults and teenagers. For many, the unimaginable trauma of suicide and sexual assault, which is vividly played out on the screen for viewers to watch, is a subject that is not easily broached, however, it allows adults to empathetically gaze at the issues many teenagers face.

As parents and professionals, it is important that the conversations surrounding sexual assault and suicide be had, no matter how difficult they may be. Discussing the depictions and representations of each character may alleviate some of the concerns parents may experience, as well as allow parents the opportunity to correct some of the inaccuracies presented in the series. As teenagers who may view the series, it is imperative that it be known that there will be someone who takes these issues seriously and is willing to address them. For each of us, the series can shine a light on the importance of being intentional in how we interact with each other and how we respond to those hurting or in need of support.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide please call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline, a 24-hour free and confidential service, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

To speak with someone regarding the issue of sexual assault please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, available 24 hours a day, at 1-800-656-4673.

Additionally, if you or someone you know is affected by the topics discussed in the series, please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists here at Cornerstone by calling our Intake Department at 312-573-8860.

13 Reasons Why: Glorifying Suicide, Increasing the Risk


’13 Reasons Why’ has sparked a buzz in popular culture since its full release on March 31st. I must admit, this Netflix Original’s constant praise on social media sparked an intrigue. I wanted to know more. So I did. I began by reading the description and was immediately taken aback. As a mental health professional, I thought, “this is downright disturbing and dangerous.” The content and the buzz. And while it is important to raise awareness of the agony that can lead to suicide, and the physical pain of self-harm, it is equally as important to do so in a responsible way. Romanticizing suicide in ’13 Reasons Why’ is irresponsible, and here are 3 reasons why:

There is no single cause for suicide. The series follows the fictional story of the suicide of a teenager, Hannah Baker, through cassette tapes through which Hannah blames specific people for her suicide. This is the first danger. Assigning blame to others is a projection of misplaced feelings of guilt. It is also inaccurate. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) indicates that “Suicide most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.” Therefore, instead of teaching our culture to assign blame for high-risk behavior, our responsibility is to teach healthy coping skills as a preventative factor of suicide.

Exposure Increases Risk. The season finale includes a scene that graphically depicts the violent suicide of Hannah Baker. It is important to note that the target audience for ’13 Reasons Why’, unsurprisingly, is the teenage and young adult population. This is also the population for which suicide is listed as the second leading cause of death (ages 15-24). More importantly, “exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide, increases risk of suicide. (AFSP)” Therefore, graphically depicting suicide to the population of highest incidence is dangerous, specifically for the at-risk youth, vulnerable to suicide.

Who can I talk to? The season finale also includes a scene where Hannah Baker decides to talk to her school counselor. As a mental health professional, this scene is troubling. The school counselor acknowledges one of the signs of suicide yet does not take action for follow-up (i.e. risk assessment). The counselor also makes assumptions about the student’s social behavior which does not foster a safe space for disclosure. To model a counselor as one that does not take appropriate action, and does not foster a safe space, leaves the audience with the message that no one can be trusted. This is a serious danger because it eliminates yet another preventative measure (i.e. talking to a trusted adult). Eliminating preventative factors for at-risk individuals can increase the risk of suicide.

While I do commend the producers of ’13 Reasons Why’ for taking the challenge of presenting an engaging and relatable series on a serious and under-discussed concern in the United States, there was a grave missed opportunity for preventive messaging. Therefore, it is important to note that help is available and individuals who actively manage their mental health conditions lead fulfilling lives.

If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, go to the nearest emergency room and/or please call, The National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

 

Below are additional resources to learn more:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

https://afsp.org/

 

Risk Factors and Warning Signs

https://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs/

 

A Teachable Moment: Webinar from AFSP, ASCA, and NASP

Teachable Moment Using “13 Reasons Why” to Initiate a Helpful Conversation About Suicide Prevention and Mental Health

https://afsp.org/campaigns/look-ways-mental-health-awareness-month-2017/

Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago