LifeAct’s Curriculum Director, Dr. Susan McGrath, Weighs In On Controversial Netflix Series
The hit Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” centers around a high school student, Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leaves behind a series of 13 cassette tapes explaining the reasons for her suicide. As an instructor for LifeAct, I felt it was important to watch the series so I could field any questions or comments students might have about this extremely popular show and its emotional content. When I asked who had viewed the series, about 75% of 9th and 10th grade students raised their hands.
For many American teens, “13 Reasons Why” paints a picture of high school life that is painfully familiar. The producers have created identifiable, relatable characters and situations that resonate with their target audience of teens and preteens. The school cliques, peer pressure and harassment felt by the main character, Hannah, and her classmates are similar to what many adolescents experience on a daily basis. As the series unfolds, the viewer gets pulled into Hannah’s spiral of despair and hopelessness which leads to her suicide that somehow feels inevitable.
Significantly, one essential component of Hannah’s reality is left out. Hannah’s increasing isolation and numbing of feelings are never identified as what they actually are – fundamental symptoms of depression, a treatable mental illness. Appropriate intervention by a mental health professional could have reversed Hannah’s downward spiral and prevented the fatal outcome.
Many school administrators and counselors are justifiably worried that vulnerable teens may view “13 Reasons Why” and imitate Hannah’s suicide as a way to get back at those who have hurt them. Others hope that the series will give teens the opportunity to talk about the difficult topics of suicide, bullying and rape. The mental health professionals suggest that parents could watch the series with their teens as a way to start those challenging conversations. However, many teens (and possibly parents) would find this intrusive and uncomfortable. Adults may be too busy to devote approximately 13 hours to viewing the whole series. Most importantly, many teens have already seen the show, with or without their parents’ knowledge.
My suggestion to parents is that they express interest in “13 Reasons Why” and ask if their teen has viewed all or part of it. If the answer is yes, ask the teen to describe the show and give their opinions about it – what they liked and what they didn’t like. Using some specific questions can make this exchange into an opportunity to be sure that the teen understands that, in real life, adolescents may experience what Hannah did but the ending does not have to be suicide.
- Which of Hannah’s painful experiences have happened to your friends or classmates?
- How did the people who could have helped Hannah let her down? What could they have done that would have changed the outcome?
- What would you do if you thought a friend was going through something like Hannah’s experiences?
The point of this discussion with your son or daughter is to let them know that if anyone is feeling like Hannah, they need to get help from a caring adult. Friendship alone is not enough to stop the hopelessness and loneliness that is depression. Depression is a real illness, and effective treatment begins with an evaluation by a mental health professional. Make sure your son or daughter knows who they can turn to if they or someone they know shares Hannah’s desperation. Asking for help can save someone’s life.
Text “START” to 741741.
Suicide Crisis Hotline 1-800-273-TALK