By now, you have probably heard of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” For those of you who don’t know about it, the story follows a teenager’s journey to learn why his classmate killed herself. The series is based on Jay Asher’s 2007 book of the same name. Popular singer and actress Selena Gomez is executive producer of the series.
Like much of today’s programming, “13 Reasons Why” spawned immediate buzz on social media when all 13 episodes dropped at the end of March. Prior to its premiere, it was touted as “binge-worthy” and received critical acclaim. The official trailer offered a sense of darkness and mystery that touched on the topic of the girl’s suicide, but it didn’t delve into how explicit the series is.
The series launched with a TV-MA rating, and two of the episodes contained “viewer discretion” warnings; however, the graphic nature in which the character’s suicide was depicted, among other issues, spawned a backlash from parents, educators, and mental health professionals. Netflix has since agreed to revise its warning labels for the series.
Despite warnings, teens and young adults burned through all 13 episodes at blazing speeds, and the Twitterverse exploded in the hours and days that followed the premiere, with Variety claiming that it is the most-tweeted-about show of 2017.
What’s the controversy?
At this point, you may wonder what the fuss is about. Violence, after all, has become the norm in much of today’s programming (think “American Horror Story” or “The Walking Dead”). While the depiction of Hannah’s death is one part of it, what is fueling the controversy is the idea that the show is glamorizing teen suicide.
The National Association of School Psychologists expressed its concerns by addressing the issue in a statement to educators, explicitly saying that vulnerable youth should not watch the show. The concern is that those youth in particular may be adversely affected by the content and could be at higher risk for potentially harming themselves. Recently, school districts throughout the country sent letters to parents and guardians of middle and high school students with information about the show and available community resources.
What can parents do?
For some parents, the school notification may have been the first time they heard of the show and the issues surrounding it. Given the always-on-the-go nature of many people’s lives, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. In addition, parents of teens are all too familiar with closed doors and Snapchat “conversations” that don’t seem to say anything at all. It’s easy to understand how they may not be aware of their kid’s Netflix watch list.
Now that it’s out there, what can parents do? That question can be answered a number of ways. As the mom of a teen, I used this as an opportunity to talk to my daughter about the program’s topics – including rape, bullying, and suicide. For many parents, it isn’t easy to broach these subjects. I am fortunate enough to have open communication with my daughter, so starting the conversation wasn’t so tough. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t uncomfortable. These are heavy topics, and you should have some sense of how much your child knows before getting into explicit details.
There are myriad online resources available to help parents. StopBullying.gov offers sample questions to help facilitate the conversation, and Planned Parenthood has information for teens and tools for parents to talk about sexual assault and consent. The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide is an excellent source of information. The organization’s website has a breakdown on how and when to talk to your teen and offers a first-person message from a “survivor mom.” More resources are listed at the bottom of this article.
A teen’s perspective
Having previously read the book, my daughter was anticipating the Netflix series. It only took her a couple of days to binge-watch it in its entirety. Before the controversy fully erupted, we had talked about the show, and she pretty much offered up a review. She said the production team took some artistic license by adding in details that weren’t included in the book, but overall she thought they did a good job.
When things started heating up online, we expanded our discussion. One such conversation included me asking how she felt the show handled the suicide and the events leading up to it. Did she think it glamorized or romanticized it? Did she think the show offered options for kids to seek help? Did it open her eyes to the struggles that kids might face?
After some intense discussion, I simply asked: What is your perspective of the show? She took a few minutes to think, and then my 16 year old came up with a profound observation – one that she didn’t make after reading the book. She said it made her realize that you really don’t know what could be the tipping point for someone, especially if you are unaware of what is going on in a person’s life. A simple remark, she said, might be the one thing that pushes someone over the edge, and knowing this, she vowed to be more aware of her actions. I walked away from that conversation with a sense of relief, but I know the discussion is far from over. I hope other parents have similar success.
With season two of “13 Reasons Why” on the horizon, it’s doubtful the controversy is going away any time soon. Now that the topic of suicide has taken center stage, parents need to learn more and open the lines of communication with their kids now.
CDPHP members looking for mental health help and support can contact the Behavioral Health Access Center at (518) 641-3600 or toll-free at 1-888-320-9584 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault provides a county-by-county list of crisis centers for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Other suicide prevention resources include: