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13 Reasons to Open a Conversation

Thirteen Reasons Why is a popular Netflix fictional series which recounts a series of events preceding the suicide of a seventeen year old high school student. The show has generated a great deal of controversy recently, primarily because it seems to present the suicide as a justifiable and logical response to the events experienced by the protagonist and because of its lack of attention to mental illness, possible supports, and the potential for positive approaches. It is a program that, perhaps more than most others, demands a discerning and critical approach. The following reflection invites parents to engage in a conversation about their teen’s viewing.

13 Reasons to Open a Conversation

The Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, has been generating a lot of controversy, and a lot of press, in recent weeks.  That’s good. Debate demands analysis, and analysis demands careful reflection.

We can’t wish this discussion away; it’s already happening. If you haven’t heard of the program, it’s very likely that your son or daughter has. It’s a popular choice for teens, and, judging by the buzz around the halls of Hamilton District Christian High, there’s been plenty of “binge-watching” going on in our homes. It’s current, and even if kids are not naturally drawn to the program, there is a FOMO (fear of missing out) element to viewing – nobody wants to be left out of the conversation. In fact, as Andre Picard of The Globe and Mail notes, phrases like “welcome to your tape” have already entered mainstream adolescent vernacular. Those phrases are floating around HD too.

In a nutshell, the fictional series, based on a novel of the same name by Jay Asher, presents a series of flashbacks of the events leading up to the suicide of seventeen-year-old Hannah Baker. These flashbacks are “narrated” by Hannah through a series of thirteen audio cassettes (one for each “reason”) she has left behind as a kind of aggregate suicide note.

As her friends listen to the cassettes and learn about Hannah’s experience, the audience develops a cumulative picture of a young girl impacted by cyberbullying, by sexual assault, by drug and alcohol use… and by the unrelenting scrutiny and self-evaluation inherent in a high-school social pecking-order.

It’s a reasonably honest (but highly subjective) portrayal of a teen’s experience (though clearly filtered through a dramatic lens) and it does openly explore the issue of suicide and its impact on peers, family, and community. It is often raw and gripping, occasionally heart-wrenching, and always thought provoking. At the very least, it portrays the incredible emotional toll of suicide and forces us to start talking. It is undoubtedly riveting and absorbing, with each riddle and puzzle piece drawing the viewer into the next episode – it’s that proverbial train wreck – you know it’s horrible, but you’re drawn to look… and to speculate.

And this is where the show begins to be problematic for me. There is clearly a voyeuristic quality to this program. It exploits tragedy for the sake of entertainment, and invites us to be spectators to other’s misfortune; it’s schadenfreude disguised as an honest expose, wrapped in all the tropes of a teen high school serial.

The show emphasizes the melodramatic nature of teen social interaction. It focuses on externalization (each tape reveals how someone in Hannah’s life shares the blame for her death), it virtually ignores underlying and emerging issues related to mental health, and it is short on solutions and strategies. I am concerned by Hannah’s assertion that people will want to find out “who else is responsible for my death.” Her death (and the tapes) is presented, not as an “out” for her problems, but as a way of exacting a kind of vengeance on those around her.

In some ways, it offers a “justification” of the girl’s suicide, and implicitly suggests that suicide is a valid and logical outcome to the situation.

That’s why I’m glad there’s a debate. In conversation, we can at least engage our teens about the program’s multiple inaccuracies and (potentially dangerous) assumptions… and just maybe we can get them to think critically about the show’s messaging. But it also gives us an opportunity to examine those things the show explores which are all too real. If your kids are watching it, watch it with them… and talk about it.

Resources
Feel free to use the links below for conversation starters and discussion points. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board offers the following ideas as starters (these ideas are fleshed out in the attached link). Parents are encouraged to:

  1. Explain the Series’ use of Dramatic Effect
  2. Clarify misinformation in the series
  3. Encourage Healthy Coping
  4. Encourage Help Seeking
  5. Talk openly and honestly about emotional distress and suicide

If you are worried about your teen, please always feel free to contact school administration or Student Services. You can also contact Shalem Christian Mental Health Network (shalemnetwork.org). For crisis situations, you can contact Kid’s Help Phone (www.kidshelpphone.ca or 1-800- 668-6868), COAST Hamilton Crisis Line (www.coasthamilton.ca or 905-972-8338), or the Ontario Mental Health Crisis Line www.mentalhealthhelpline.ca or 1-866-531-2600). In an emergency, you can always contact 911.

Helpful links for talking about the program with your teen:

  • Talking Points PDF
  • A very helpful one-page conversation starter published by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board:
  • A great resource exploring myths and misconceptions in the program, published by the American National Association of School Psychologists

By: James Apers
Director of Student Services

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