“Welcome to your tape.”
If you’ve had the opportunity to view Netflix’s white-hot series, 13 Reasons Why, you’ll have no problem understanding the quote cited above. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s a 13 part Netflix original fictional series about teenage bullying and suicide. The series, based on the 2007 book by Jay Asher, concludes with the main character, Hannah Baker, taking her life in a very graphic portrayal. I won’t include a synopsis of the story here. (You can read about the plot here.) But I will say this: the series is as controversial as it is popular.
Before I continue, please allow me to make one thing clear: I’m not a professional counselor. But I do have intimate experience with this topic.
- First, I have worked with teenagers for over 30 years in student ministry.
- Second, and far more importantly, my 19 year old son took his life in 2013. So I write from the perspective not of a Hollywood script, but real life.
Simply put, 13 Reasons Why is:
- Dark – because it portrays adults (parents, school counselors) as incompetent and out of touch, offering little more than cliches and shallow concern.
- Dangerous – because, for those teens who do suffer from Major Depressive Disorder, Hannah’s story can easily transcend fiction and become reality. Don’t believe me? Consider the following email I received from a man in Indiana:
- “Just had a 15 year old son of my friend kill himself. He just finished watching ’13 Reasons Why’. He left notes to kids that were bullying him. This movie should be taken down.” (I received permission from the boy’s family to share this information. By the way, the boy’s name was Jordan.)
I was made aware of the series recently by a public school counselor who wrote that she had seen an increase in students coming to see her due to watching this series. She wrote,
I had a crisis appointment this morning and a patient taken to the hospital due to extreme suicidal thoughts after watching this series. As I called the crisis line to activate the crisis protocol, the crisis worker on the phone told me they have had several incidents the past 2 weeks since the show aired of having to activate crisis protocol after people had watched the show and began acting out suicidal plans.
Although I didn’t need Hollywood to inform me of the horror of a teenage child’s suicide, I decided to watch the series because (1) it’s extremely popular with teens, and (2) I thought watching it would help me be more informed since I frequently speak to teens in public schools and churches about suicide & suicide intervention/prevention.
I was unprepared for what I was about to watch.
Given my family history, watching the series was, for me, brutal. Having found my son that day in 2013, when I watched Hannah’s parents discover their girl’s lifeless body, I screamed and wept. Immediately, I knew I needed to make parents aware of 13 Reasons Why as soon as I possibly could. But, frankly, I was so messed up following the final episode, it took me a number of days to compose myself and be able to articulate my conviction about the series in, hopefully, a clear and intelligent manner.
For those who may read into this blog, “You’re overreacting since your child took his life,” allow me to direct your attention to a letter sent to parents from the administration at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, KS, via their Facebook page warning all parents about the series. You can access the letter here. (A simple Google search will reveal numerous school districts issuing warnings about the series. Here’s one article. Here’s another.) Additionally, a public school counselor from Maine shares her strong concerns here. Finally – and this should bring clarity as to how traumatizing the series is – People Magazine was one of several news outlets reporting that therapy dogs were brought onto the set to comfort the actors.
Parents should know that, in an attempt to appear like they’re portraying “reality”, the producers and writers not only pushed the limit but, in my opinion (and others: see below), carelessly crossed the line.
NBC News ran a story entitled, Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why’ Carries Danger of Glorifying Suicide, Experts Say. (Read the entire article here.) The article states, in part,
Critics have lauded the show, which has earned stellar ratings, including a 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also been the most tweeted about program so far this year, Variety reported. But some mental health professionals feel it is a dangerous fantasy that romanticizes suicide
“Sequences of terrible things happen to Hannah, and we don’t get a feel for her internalization until she kills herself,” Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the JED Foundation, told NBC News. “None of that stuff is made clear because it’s focused on the horrible things people have done to her. The whole thing is an extended revenge fantasy.”
Phyllis Alongi, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, said…, “Netflix isn’t going to pull it and kids are watching it, and they’re binge watching it without anyone helping them process it. We feel it was done irresponsibly and we don’t agree with many portrayals including of Hannah’s death, memorialization, and placing blame on others.”
Alongi said suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 and that the number is increasing.
Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and Executive Director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), warns,
“One of the ways [the series] really failed is they never talked about treatment options; they never gave a viable alternative for [Hannah]… We just want people to understand that it’s fiction, not fact. It’s about helping people understand the reality of suicide.” [However], “The show does not address mental illness or present viable alternatives to suicide.”
Significantly, Reidenberg, shares,
“…he was contacted by Netflix and asked to provide guidance… He said he told Netflix that they shouldn’t go ahead with the project.” (See entire article here.)
The Chicago Tribune ran an article entitled, ’13 Reasons Why’ Offers Wrong Solution to Teen Struggles. The author, Jack VanNoord, wrote,
“Netflix, I love you. I really do. But on this one you not only got it wrong, you got it dangerously wrong.”
Sure, you will find many complimentary reviews online of the series. But almost all are directed at the “nuts & bolts” of the production i.e. directing, acting, etc. The romanticizing of suicide and the total absence of intervention i.e. medical attention, professional counseling, etc., is what makes the series both dark and dangerous for those who are depressed, suicidal or have considered suicide as an option at some point in their life.
Yahoo News posted,
“In a public statement, the National Association of School Psychologists issued a warning against viewing the series to parents of “vulnerable youth.”
Alexa Curtis, writing for Rolling Stone, agrees:
For teens who are battling mental health issues, witnessing the end of a life as easily as the show portrayed it could help desensitize kids to this very serious matter.
Before the suicide, Hannah admits to a counselor that she is feeling lost and empty – clear signals of depression. As she talks about her sadness and anger, instead of being admitted to a clinic, the distracted employee simply gives her a box of tissues to heal her wounds. Had 13 Reasons Why showcased other forms of outreach, like therapy, teens watching it might realize that there is always an option that doesn’t include self-harm.
And, Sezín Koehler, writing for the Huffington Post, and accusing the series of romanticizing suicide, holds nothing back:
You don’t get any more romantic than a charming dead girl speaking from beyond the grave — on cassette tapes, no less — about everyone who wronged her, as if she’s merely hosting a podcast. Whenever suicide is presented as the only option,…we are in dangerous territory. And that’s exactly what “13 Reasons Why” does.
Granted, fans of 13 Reasons Why argue that the series “encourages conversations” about bullying and suicide. That is true. After all, you and I are having a “conversation” about it here. However – and this is my sole contention – a person who is severely depressed and/or suicidal is not in a healthy place psychologically. And, if they should watch this series alone they are entering a world that is both dark and dangerous. Dark because the series is virtually void of hope. And dangerous because of what the series can prompt in the mind of someone who is already suffering from mental illness i.e. clinical depression, bipolar disorder, etc.
Lastly, allow me to offer three strong recommendations:
- Parents – I strongly caution all teens who choose to view the series. There are healthier ways (read: less triggering ways) to have needed dialogue about bullying and suicide. However,…. if your child insists on watching the series – watch it with them. Be aware: the show is full of profanity, obscenity, two graphic rape scenes, and, of course, included in its final episode is the graphic scene of Hannah Baker taking her life. But, if your child insists on watching it, watch it anyway – with them. Talk about each episode immediately after that episode ends. If your child has already watched it, visit with them immediately about it and consider watching a few episodes yourself. If your child gets offended that you’re “poking your nose into their business” tell them, “I have that right. I’m your parent. No one on this planet loves you more than I do.” Always, as a parent, err on the side of caution.
- Teens – (even if you’re not a teen) If you’ve viewed the series – many of you will be affected emotionally (how can you not be?) If you suffer from bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts – I beg you – talk to somebody immediately (a parent, sibling, grandparent, teacher, friend, youth pastor, coach, counselor). The devastation from losing you is unfathomable to the human mind. I know this from personal experience. It may sound trite, but “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I know you may not be able to (and, most likely, can’t) see the light of hope at the moment – but that’s what we are here for: to carry you, to share your load, and help you see the light again. There is a God – and He loves you. You are awesome. You are beautiful. You matter. You are not alone. You are so very loved. You cannot be replaced. And help is available in abundance. Many people have gone to school for many years for the sole purpose of being equipped to help you through your dark time of crisis. Do not do anything to harm yourself. I repeat, do not do anything to harm yourself. Your death is irreversible and will leave a gaping wound in the lives of your family and friends.
- Friends – If you are a friend of someone you suspect of being bullied, suffering from depression, or having suicidal thoughts, talk to them immediately. Ask them if they’ve watched 13 Reasons Why. Get them talking – whatever it takes. As I recommended to parents, always err on the side of caution. If the friend you suspected of suicidal thoughts is genuinely ok, everyone is good. But, if you’re right – you may have well saved a life.
Bottom Line: While some will disagree with what I’ve written here, please understand I write from the perspective of a parent who’s lost a teenage child to suicide. Like me, my son, Jordan, suffered from crippling depression. May 13, 2013, was the worst day of my, and my family’s, life. My effort here is, by making parents aware of the series, to simply try and prevent this tragedy from happening to anyone else on planet earth. While 13 Reasons Why will not serve as a trigger to every viewer, it clearly will (and has) to many. If the series has not yet prompted dialogue in your home, perhaps this blog will.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
For Jordan Watts
I love you all, Nick
“In this world you will have trouble (bullying, depression, pain), but take heart – I have overcome the world.” Jesus Christ (John 16:33)