Thinking about 13 Reasons Why: Teens, Mental Health and Media
Please Note: This Post Will Contain Discussions of Triggering Topics and Spoilers for the Book/Show
You are probably aware that 13 Reasons Why the book by Jay Asher has been made into a popular Netflix show. And you’ve probably seen a lot of discussion about this show. In fact, if you’re life looks anything like mine then you have seen a plethora of articles and posts about how everyone should watch the show followed by a discussion of how everyone shouldn’t watch the show. I’ve read more than 10 articles, not to mention all the Facebook and Twitter discussion.
A Little Background
Years ago when I read the book, I liked it and recommended it. I have not re-read the book in preparation for watching the show. If you are not aware, it is a book that deals with bullying, sexual violence and suicide. These are all tough topics to tackle.
The basics: Clay Jensen, a shy high school student, returns home from school one day to find that he has received a mysterious package in the mail. It contains seven double-sided cassette tapes used by Hannah Baker, a classmate who has recently committed suicide. Each tape details a reason that she killed herself.
To give you a little more background about me, I am the survivor of sexual abuse and I have been suicidal as a result of that abuse. I also periodically struggle with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. So I can relate to this book on so many levels.
What I Told My Teen
In addition to working with teens, for over 20 years now, I also parent a teen. She began watching the Netflix show and we watched a couple of episodes of the show together. I was struck immediately by how graphic the show was. Please note that it comes with a M for mature content warning. So I decided to watch ahead to see how the topics of sexual violence and suicide were handled.
After doing so, I told my teen that I did not want her to finish watching the show. I have never censored what she reads, and I would allow her to read the book, but I told her that she couldn’t finish watching the show.
My Reasons Why
For one, I just don’t watch depictions of sexual violence on tv or in the movies. That is a full stop no for me. The sexual violence depicted in this tv show is very graphic. You can make the argument that it’s necessary and is done to help illustrate how horrific sexual violence is, but the depiction of sexual violence on the screen is a no go for me. For one, no matter how well done it is, you know that there are depraved individuals watching who are, to be blunt, getting off on it. For another, I always wonder how having to film these types of scenes is for the actors involved. And these scenes are, for so many people, very triggering. Below we will discuss how mental health experts suggest that suicide should not be depicted on the screen, and I feel the same way about sexual violence.
Then there is the idea of suicide as revenge. In 13 Reasons Why the main character, Hannah, commits suicide and leaves a series of cassette tapes that tell everyone the role they played in her suicide. It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy – I will take my own life and you will feel guilty for it. It’s also an incredibly unhealthy message to send to teenagers, many of whom are already thinking about the suicide as revenge fantasy as they try to navigate their daily lives. In the midst of my abuse, I too thought a lot about suicide as the ultimate form of revenge. I thought that if I took my life then my abuser would be haunted forever for what they had done to me. But adult me now realizes this simple truth: the people that hurt you are often bad people, they aren’t going to care that you are gone. It’s true that sometimes good, decent people make mistakes that hurt us and they would feel guilty, but it’s also true that a lot of abuse is perpetuated by people who don’t care about others so they aren’t going to feel guilt. Surviving abuse is, I have found, the best form of revenge.
As a further point, it’s important to note that mental health experts state that suicide should never be depicted on the screen. For reasons that we don’t clearly understand, suicide can be a very chain reaction type of thing, especially among teenagers. When a school experiences a suicide, there are often a couple more. People struggling with depression and suicidal ideation are very susceptible to this topic. And the suicide in 13 Reasons Why is very, very graphic. It goes against the recommendations of the organizations that are committed to mental health.
I also have concerns about the way mental health is depicted in the show. There is little to no genuine discussion about mental health issues in this show. We are led to understand that Hannah has depression, but what does that mean? Does Hannah have depression AND she was the subject of this awful crime and bullying? Or does Hannah have depression BECAUSE she was the subject of this awful crime and bullying? Depression can be a product of brain chemistry, but you can also have situational depression. Depression is not only one thing and it doesn’t manifest in the same way for all people. I felt that the show did a very poor job of handling the mental health aspects.
The teens in this show almost never seek out the help of an adult. As Clay listens to the tapes, he never discusses any of what is happening with an adult. We do find out that Hannah did in fact reach out to one adult, her school counselor, and that this adult fails her. This scenario actually played out in real life just this past weekend as my daughter’s friend reached out to her school counselor about a rumor that was being spread in school and this counselor told her to “just let it blow over”. I spent the weekend dealing with the very real life ramifications of a poorly trained and unengaged school counselor so this scenario isn’t far fetched or unbelievable, but it is dangerous. In a show filled with adults, having the only adult that these teens reach out to fail reinforces the teenage belief that adults aren’t there for teens. Now I know it was necessary to propel this story forward, but I also acknowledge that it is a dangerous reinforcement of a commonly held teenage belief: adults are self-absorbed, adults don’t care, adults are incompetent. Teens struggling with mental health issues need to know that they can and should reach out to the adults in their lives to seek help.
In teen reactions I have seen to the show there has been a lot of if only . . . If only Clay had told Hannah that he loved her. If only Clay had done this or that or the other. This also is a dangerous idea because it blames the survivors. The truth is that no one is responsible for mental illness. It’s an illness and the actions of others don’t cause it. The things that happened to Hannah could not have happened, she could have been the most popular, happiest girl in school, and she still might have died by suicide, because that’s how depression works. Clay is not responsible for what happens to Hannah. He is not to blame. And nothing he could have done would have saved her. And it’s important that everyone understand this. Depression and mental illness are very real, complicated diseases. If Hannah had diabetes and she died from the complications of diabetes, we would not blame Clay or suggest that if Clay had just told her he loved her she would have been okay. And that is true of mental health issues as well. It’s important that everyone watching this show understands that. And I’m not sure that everyone does and it is very concerning.
In the end, one of the arguments made against this show is that it romanticizes suicide, and I can see where that argument holds. I also want to acknowledge that for a lot of teens, this book and the show have been very positive and affirming. They state that it helped them by affirming that they are not alone in their feelings. So I hate to universally dismiss a show that my teens have had positive identification with. As I mentioned, there are strong reactions on both the pro and con side of this show, and I feel that they are both valid. I, personally, tend to be more in favor of the book and less in favor of the show for the reasons mentioned.
One thing that I think about over and over again is how everyone says that teens should be watching this show and talking about it with adults. The truth is, not every teen has an adult to talk about the show with. My teen could finish watching the show and I would talk to her about it, but not all teens have present and engaged parents. And yes, you could read the book in the classroom and talk about it, though I would remind us all that we are librarians and not social workers or psychologists. I don’t think you can watch the show in a classroom given the rating. So that leaves us with this: here is a show that everyone says teens need to watch and talk to an adult with to process, but many teens don’t have an adult to talk with and process this show. I can’t help but think about all those teens who have watched this show and don’t have a trusted, knowledgeable adult to help them process their thoughts and feelings about this.
We do talk about sexual violence and depression in my house. I have talked since the moment my kids were born with them about bodily autonomy and consent and healthy relationships. They know what rape is, and other forms of sexual violence. And we are very aware of mental health issues. My kids have seen me spend a couple of days in bed in a deep depressive state. They know that a year and a half ago my best friend died by suicide and they have seen the effects it has had on me. These are not issues I shy away from or try to protect my kids from. I just thought that this show was too much for them at this time. So we’re not watching it.
Filed under: Mental Health
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network