As a father of a teenager and tween, I am very concerned about a dangerous trend we have observed in our schools in recent days. School District personnel have observed an increase in youth at-risk behavior at the elementary and middle school levels to include self-mutilation, threats of suicide, and multiple Baker Act incidents. Students involved in the recent incidents have articulated associations of their at-risk behavior to the “13 Reasons Why” Netflix series. The Netflix website tagline summarizes the series theme as follows: “After a teenage girl’s perplexing suicide, a classmate receives a series of tapes that unravel the mystery of her tragic choice.”
We’ve heard from our members that 13 Reasons Why has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the intense themes and difficult topics depicted in the show. We knew the material covered sensitive topics, as the book did when it was published in 2007, and we worked with mental health experts to show how these issues impact teens in real and dramatic ways. With this in mind, we gave the series a TV-MA rating, added explicit warnings on the three most graphic episodes, produced an after show, “Beyond the Reasons,” that delves deeper into some of the tougher topics portrayed, as well as created a global website (13reasonswhy.info) to help people find local mental health resources. Entertainment has always been the ultimate connector and we hope that 13 Reasons Why can serve as a catalyst for conversation.
Producers for the show say they hope the series can help those who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. However, the series, which many teenagers are binge watching without adult guidance and support, is raising concerns from suicide prevention experts about the potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide. The series graphically depicts a suicide death and addresses in wrenching detail a number of difficult topics, such a bullying, rape, drunk driving, and slut shaming. The series also highlights the consequences of teenagers witnessing assaults and bullying (i.e., bystanders) and not taking action to address the situation (e.g., not speaking out against the incident, not telling an adult about the incident).We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help. Hannah’s parents are also unaware of the events that lead to her suicide death.
The story — as first told by Asher’s novel and now developed into this series by Pulitzer-winning playwright Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”) — strikes me as remarkably, even dangerously, naive in its understanding of suicide, up to and including a gruesome, penultimate scene of Hannah opening her wrists in a bathtub. Whatever “Thirteen Reasons Why” gets right about teen tendencies toward melodrama fades as the series fumbles around with tone and emotional accuracy. The characters very rarely come across as real, perhaps because the story itself is so contrived.