The Parents’ Guide to Discussing ’13 Reasons Why’ With Your Child by Jennifer Taylor
Netflix launched a new show at the end of March 2017 called ’13 Reasons Why” that has drawn a lot of buzz in therapy circles and parenting groups.
Like most popular culture, it succeeds at keeping you in suspense enough to watch multiple episodes in a row. In fact, your teens are probably staying up late watching it now (if they haven’t already).
Premise of ’13 Reasons Why’
According to Netflix, the premise of the show is
“After a teenage girls perplexing suicide, a classmate receives a series of tapes that unravel the mystery of her tragic choice.”
So, basically a girl (Hannah) commits suicide but instead of leaving a note, she leaves a series of tape recordings explaining how the other kids at her school contributed to her decision to take her life.
Each of them gets a piece of the responsibility or blame. The show combines snippets of Hannah’s life prior to the suicide with interactions of the remaining students afterwards told from the point of view of her “friend” Clay.
**Possible Spoiler Alert
Criticism of ’13 Reasons Why’
As you might guess, this show has elements that make some parents uncomfortable. Like most high schools around the country, this school has issues that parents don’t always like seen displayed so graphically.
Among the concerns are:
- Underage alcohol use & binge drinking
- Marijuana Use
- Sexual Content and Language
- AND the big one: the suicide scene
The show opens with a typical house party with kids drinking alcohol (one of many alcohol scenes). Later in the show, a girl is raped while passed out from drinking too much. Those who know about it do nothing.
One main character is frequently smoking weed from a bong and is often high at school.
Another group of kids come to the school costume contest dressed in scuba gear and call themselves “muff divers.”
In one scene, characters refer to Hannah has being “DTF” – which for my friends who have not had the guilty pleasure of watching MTV’s Jersey Shore shenanigans means “Down to F@ck”
And don’t forget, there is the rape and then it specifically shows Hannah’s suicide.
Cautions Against “13 Reasons Why’ From Experts
Despite the array of Tweets and the press that says that this show brings positive attention to the topic of suicide, experts are not convinced. In fact, many of the agencies or foundations that focus on depression, mental health and suicide are concerned that this show sends the wrong message about suicide.
Not The Right Way To Handle Suicide Coverage
This article explains how the show violates nearly all of the recommendations about media coverage for suicide from ReportingOnSuicide.org. These recommendations include NOT sensationalizing the suicide, NOT talking about the suicide note, AND not describing (or showing in graphic detail) the suicide method. ’13 Reasons Why’ gets it wrong on all counts.
Not An Accurate Depiction of Mental Health
Moreover, the show fails to address depression or mental health/illness in any significant way. Among the ’13 Reasons’ is not a history of mental health or depression (the most common risk factor in completed suicides). This is especially disappointing given that the executive producer, Selena Gomez, has been quite vocal about her own struggles with anxiety and depression.
Not Helpful For Perpetuating Survivor’s Guilt
Another big complaint is that it perpetuates the belief that the other students are to BLAME for Hannah’s suicide. While, it does an “okay” job of discussing the concept of survivors guilt, the students involved are mostly more concerned about keeping the story a secret and avoiding any consequences or repercussions.
Can Be A Trigger For People With Mental Health or Trauma
Due to the content, the discussions and images have reportedly been a negative trigger for some people who watch the show. This is not to say that people who watch ’13 Reasons Why’ will take their life; but more that it can trigger additional feelings of depression, loneliness and hopelessness.
Reasons Why You Might Want To Watch It
This show has prompted a lot of discussion among my therapist friends about the value of watching the show. There’s really only two main reasons that are cited:
- It is helpful to be “in the know” about things that are popular with teens. (That’s the reason that I watched it)
- The show can be a prompt for deep and meaningful discussions between therapists and clients and between children and parents. *Note: I said it CAN BE. In the actual show, teens and parents failed to have any significant positive discussions about Hannah’s death or the aftermath.But in real life, there have been meaningful discussions about it.
’13 Reasons Why’ Discussion Questions
My recommendation is that if your child is remotely interested in this show, that you watch it with your child.
Really, together. On the same couch at the same time! Then spend some time talking about the key points in each episode. Because this show is based on Jay Asher’s book of the same name, there are dozens of book club lists with discussion questions available if you look for them.
The Jed Foundation has also released this great list of talking points.
What Therapists Discuss
If you want discussion questions specifically used by child counselors, you can borrow some of the ones that came up in our discussion board. Included are:
- What impact does Hannah’s suicide have on her parents, the school and her classmates?
- Why do you think none of the students discussed the tapes with their parents?
- What is the difference between shame and guilt? Which characters feel guilty for their actions and which are ashamed?
- What might have happened if Hannah had responded differently to Tyler in the very beginning-could there have been a different butterfly effect?
- What could Courtney have done differently or how could she have handled the situation differently rather than throw Hannah under the bus?
- Does Hannah’s use of the tapes create risks for additional suicides? How do her actions affect the lives of the people on the tapes?
- How does keeping a secret affect people? How do the characters change when they start to talk about or reveal their secrets?
- How does the school counselor let the students down? What can you do if an adult doesn’t do their job well or isn’t helpful?
- Who can you go to for support when you are stressed? What it is about that person/people that is the most helpful?
- Have you ever thought about hurting yourself or taking your life?
AND BONUS – My Favorite Discussion Question of All Time
’13 Reasons Why’ is basically an updated version of one of my most memorable group activities from my Bachelor’s program at the University of West Florida. I vividly remember being asked to complete “The Drawbridge Exercise” and subsequently being labeled as “oppositional” due to my response.
’13 Reasons Why’ & The Drawbridge Exercise
The Drawbridge exercise tells a story about a woman who is told by her jealous husband not to leave the gates of a castle or she will be “severely punished.’ Shockingly, she leaves. And, of all places, goes to visit a lover. On her way back, a gateman is waiting and says if she attempts to cross the bridge, she will be killed. She then returns to the lover for help and he refuses. She asks several other characters for help and all refuse. Receiving no help, she returns to the bridge and is killed by the gateman.
The Question is “Who Is To Blame?”
In class, our group was then instructed to assign levels of responsibility for her murder to all of the people in the story that refused to help her, the husband that ordered the murder and the gateman himself. You are to rank them from 1-6 in order of “most responsible” to “least responsible.”
And that is a great discussion question for the cast members of ’13 Reasons Why.’
Who is the most responsible or least responsible for Hannah’s death? Can you rank the characters in order of blame? Are any of them at fault?
Now, obviously, there is a HUGE difference between homicide and suicide. I think we can all find it easier to assign blame in a murder.
Nevertheless, the concept that there is someone to BLAME is an ethical question brought up in the show. In ’13 Reasons Why’ the characters struggle with feeling like ‘we are all responsible for Hannah’s death” and that “Hannah made the decision to take her life and she is the one to blame.”
It is basically a new age version of “The Drawbridge Exercise.” And it is an interesting discussion about assigning blame or responsibility for tragedy.
But, back to the drawbridge…
Wondering What I Said?
Remember…I was 19 years old and thought the world was simple.
I said, “The only person responsible for the woman’s death is the gateman. He is number 1 through 6. Everyone else is zero.”
My instructor did not like that. He thought I wasn’t taking the discussion seriously. I was labeled oppositional.
Mental health experts will also disagree with a discussion question that assigns blame to survivors for a suicide. But, I think it is a good way to bring about a discussion about regrets. In this YOLO / NO REGRETS world that high schoolers are in, it might be nice to talk about how your actions have consequences, even if you didn’t have bad intentions.
Now that I am not 19 (thankfully), I see more gray areas than I did in my college Social Justice class. In therapy there are these things called “duty to warn” and “duty to protect” that hold me responsible for failure to act in cases of potential suicide or homicide or abuse/neglect.
But more than that, I see both sides. Our actions do have consequences. Too often we fail to see how we influence others (in both positive and negative ways). We are ultimately responsible for our own choices, but know this….
HOPELESSNESS is the biggest predictor of suicide. Without assigning blame, make an effort to do what you can to prevent hopelessness in those around you.
*Not sure when take a suicide threat seriously-read more here.
See more from Jennifer Taylor here: Jennifer Taylor Play Therapy.