By Dr. Angelique Jenney
Wood’s Homes Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health
‘13 Reasons Why’ is a series about suicide that is available for viewing on Netflix. The story is based on the 2007 novel ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’, written by Jay Asher. It is about a female high school student who kills herself because of several problems with other students at her school. She leaves behind cassette tapes for a friend that she recorded before committing suicide. And there are 13 reasons why she did.
This show would be very difficult to watch if you have experienced any similar hurting in your life as it could trigger memories or other difficult feelings.
One of the things we know is that parents are often just a few moments behind their trend-savvy kids – and when you mention this show you are likely going to find out they’ve already watched it through to the end. If that’s the case, ask if they would introduce you to it; perhaps they would be willing to introduce you to the first and last episodes. If they feel strongly about a particular episode in between they might also choose to share it with you – and that in itself could be telling. The most graphically disturbing episodes come with a viewer warning which should prompt a parent to gently state:
“Hmmm, do you think we are ready to see this part? We can skip it entirely or stop it if it gets too upsetting.”
Children under 14 years should probably not view those episodes at all.
If nothing else, watch the 30-minute Netflix addition called ‘13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons’– which has the creators, the novelist and the show’s characters talking about what they hoped viewers would take away from this show. It provides an excellent opportunity to educate yourself and have a great conversation with your kids about all of the timely and important topics introduced.
Here are 13 reasons why parents or caregivers should watch (and tips for discussion starters):
1. It never hurts to display an interest in what interests your children. This needs to be done with an air of openness, curiosity and sharing – not in a way that says, “See? I told you this show was awful!” Try:
“What is it about this show that you like so much? What do you take from it?”
2. Because it’s about suicide. It’s every parent’s nightmare and a very unfortunate risk factor in adolescence. ‘13 Reasons Why’ offers a window of opportunity to discuss this difficult subject and to talk about the issue of mental health, how to recognize that you need help, and how to get it.
“I wish Hannah had talked to more people about how she was feeling, how might that have changed things? Why do you think this was hard for her?”
3. Because it deals with bullying, and the number of ways that this takes place for young people today – in person, online, with photographs, texts, eye-rolls and social isolation. It provides an opportunity to address the use of technology, the power of social media and to start discussions about how teens might keep themselves safer online.
“Wow, things really got out of hand there, could any of that be prevented? How could _____ have handled that differently?”
4. It portrays power and privilege and issues of diversity and how that does not always translate into everyone having the same choices.
“Why does Bryce seem to have so much power over everyone else? What do you think Tony means when he says that reporting to the police in his community is not an option?”
5. It portrays a lot of different families. There are imperfect marriages, and imperfect parenting. It reminds us that we don’t always know what is going on in the lives of our children’s closest friends and why we should.
“Who do you think has the best family in this show? What makes them better than other families? Who has the hardest family life?”
6. It deals with growing up, separating from your parents and the resulting loneliness. More importantly, it talks about the value of finding and making good friends and how to tell the difference.
“That friendship seemed to be a good one, what do you think went wrong? That friendship seems really bad for that kid, why do you think he/she stays in it?”
7. Because high school can be hard. And because that time is about figuring out the way the world works, how to navigate peer pressure and how to embrace being weird. It’s also about preparing for those giant life transitions like choosing what to do next (college).
“These kids are really dealing with a lot of changes, everyone wants to grow up so fast, but they also realize how hard it is – what could help them with all of this?”
8. It illustrates realistically that under-age drinking, drug-use and impaired driving happen and that teens are using drugs and alcohol to help navigate stressful social situations, to fit in, and sometimes to self-medicate. These are all opportunities for good discussion, using the characters themselves:
“Why do you think Justin keeps smoking pot and not going to school? How is this going to help solve the problem he is facing? Clay clearly does not want a drink, but has trouble saying no, what is that about?”
9. It deals with sexuality (and gender stereotypes) and what it means to be gay or straight and the pressure that comes from these expectations, particularly around masculinity. It specifically deals with how sexualizing girls harms them.
“Do you know anyone that this has happened to? How do girls/boys at your school handle the issues that these kids are facing?”
10. It talks about sexual assault and understanding consent. It makes it painfully real (the rape scenes in episode 9 and 12 are nothing short of disturbing) and hopefully creates a strong sense of what consent does and does not look like.
“There seems to be lots of confusion around whether or not it is safe to have sex with someone in this series, how are these kids learning about how to communicate around intimacy? Among which couples does it go right, and where does it go wrong?”
11. Because it invokes feelings of empathy. Every character in the show is depicted as struggling with something, and if we can see that in others, it makes us all better people. Your teens can tell you why they feel particular things about particular characters. The storyline reminds us all that we never know what another person is struggling with. It also reminds us that we will not know unless we ask and are willing to hear about it. Hannah does reach out for help, but the opportunities are lost because they are not recognized in the moment. The message you want to deliver here is:
“If something is bothering you, keep talking about it until you get help with it. You might have to tell several people, before you tell the right person who knows what to do. If you do not want to tell me, that is OK, I just hope you will talk to someone if you are hurting. Don’t give up, there is always someone out there.”
12. Because conversations about hard things are important. One of the things that struck me most as an adult viewer is that none of the kids are telling their parents anything about what is going on, which leaves them guessing, and unknowingly making some things worse. If there is anything you should be asking your child while watching this show, it’s:
“Why do you think (insert name of any character here) isn’t going to their parents for help?” Why do you think Clay (one of the main characters) doesn’t want his parents to know he cared about Hannah (the character who commits suicide)? What could the parents in this show do differently?”
13. Finally, you should watch this show because it demonstrates that there is always room for hope and healing. It allows for an important conversation about what justice really looks like and how hurting others to get back at them for the hurt they caused does not make it better. There is no healing in that. As Clay states at the end:
“It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other, it has to get better somehow.”
At the end of the day, the show is popular because it is dramatic and romantic and it makes kids feel something while they watch it. A second season has been announced and will air in 2018, which I interpret as another important message that no matter what happens, life can and does go on. Just as long as we keeping talking about it.
If you know someone who needs to talk about something, there is always someone out there. Wood’s Homes has a number of ways that people can reach out for help:
- Call us: 403-299-9699 or toll-free at 1-800-563-6106
- Text us: 587-315-5000 (9 a.m. – 10 p.m.)
- LiveChat: Click here
- Email: To: email@example.com
- No-charge, walk-in counselling: Eastside Family Centre #255, 495 36 Street NE, Calgary, AB
There has been a lot of recent controversy around this drama. For more information click here:
And there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about this show (you can read 13 of them written by a psychotherapist here).
Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends, family and community – let’s work together!