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'13 Reasons Why' and the Tragedy of Teen Suicide

The popular Netflix series seeks to address a worthy issue, but it has some troubling flaws.
By Dave Boehi


"Hey, it's Hannah. Hannah Baker. Don't adjust your—whatever device you're hearing this on. It's me, live and in stereo. No return engagements. No encore, and this time absolutely no requests. Get a snack, settle in, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you're listening to this tape, you're one of the reasons why."

These words set the stage for the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, which in the last month has become wildly popular among teenagers. In the 13-episode drama, 17-year-old Hannah has left behind a series of cassette tapes describing the events that led to her suicide. Each episode focuses on the events from her narrative about the 13 people who failed her in some way. After each person on her list listens to the tapes, they are instructed to pass them on to the next.

The series is so captivating that it tempts you to put your life on hold so you can binge-watch it. But it's also sobering, depressing, and difficult to watch. Since you know from the beginning that this story doesn't have a happy ending, you are left analyzing the multitude of poor choices made by every character in the narrative.

Parents should take its TV-MA rating seriously; many mature adults would not want to watch this. It paints a bleak picture of high school life, with drinking, drugs, and sex … cyber-bullying and slut shaming … continual foul language … grappling with sexual identity … two sexual assaults … and a graphic depiction of suicide.

But the fact is that many teenagers are watching this series, even if their parents don't realize it. As one mother of a 13-year-old told the New York Times, "I had never heard of it, so I assumed Zoe hadn't seen it … I asked her when she got home from school, and she said, 'Mom, I'm almost done with the whole series. All my friends watch it, too.' It just goes to show you how much they do behind our backs."

The show has become so popular that it has spawned a national conversation. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for the 15-24 age group. And while the show's creators may be well-intentioned in their desire to address the issue, the show has also raised a number of concerns for many parents, counselors, and experts on teenage suicide. They're using words like dangerous, irresponsible, and disturbing to describe 13 Reasons Why, and they fear it will ultimately do more harm than good.

As one writer said in Slate, "13 Reasons Why dropped a bombshell into homes and schools, and it now has mental health and suicide prevention professions doing damage control."

Following are some of the most serious concerns:

1. The adults in the story are not just clueless about the world of teenagers but also totally impotent in their attempts to communicate.

It's scary to observe how teenagers and adults inhabit the same physical space but live in different universes. Parents and teachers in this story have no idea what the kids are doing, even inside their own homes.

What's troubling is how often the story puts the blame for this disconnection on the adults. They are distracted, or inept, or abusive, or absent, or unable to believe their little angels could do anything wrong.

Sadly, even the adults who try to connect are unable to because the kids won't talk to them. The drama does a good job of showing how teenagers often have trouble expressing their concerns and feelings to adults. But it's more than that—until the very end of the drama the students are absolutely united in their determination to keep everything secret from the adults in their lives.

In one scene, the attorney representing the school district in a lawsuit brought by Hannah's parents senses something is wrong with her son, Clay, who happens to be the one listening to Hannah's tapes. Clay was in love with Hannah and is distraught over her death, but has told his parents he barely knew her.

"If this case could hurt you in any way," she tells Clay, "then I won't take it. But you have to tell me why. You have to tell me what's going on. I can't help you if you don't talk to me."

Every adult watching this scene is probably screaming, "Tell her! Give her the tapes!" But Clay squirms and grimaces and finally says, "You can't help anyway, Mom."

2. The series encourages a dangerous scenario of "revenge by suicide."

Dr. John Ackerman, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research in Columbus, Ohio, warns that 13 Reasons Why "hooks into a common adolescent fantasy: 'You'll be sorry when I am gone!'"

Indeed, by the end of the series, most of the people Hannah blames for her death are very sorry. Many are accepting responsibility for what they've done. And one shoots himself in the head.

Of course, Hannah doesn't see any of this. She's dead.

Kristen Douglas, spokesperson for an Australian youth mental health organization, writes, "She's telling the story in a way that means she's getting resolution about her suicide, and that's not a reality. … Sadly, I think young people sometimes don't always fully understand the finality of death. You don't get resolution about that."

3. Because the series doesn't mention depression or mental illness, it's easy to empathize with Hannah's pain and accept her reasons for suicide.

13 Reasons Why does a good job of helping you feel Hannah's pain. Repeatedly you see the world from her point of view. In one sequence, a photo is sent to her classmates that, viewed out of context, makes her look slutty. As she watches them look at the picture on their phones, you feel like you are sitting with her, sharing her bewilderment and shame.

If you're an adult watching the program, you think, "Wow, I'm glad I'm not in high school."

But many teenagers are thinking, "I can relate to that. I can feel it."

Events escalate with each episode until a sexual assault pushes Hannah over the edge. But you barely see her internal struggle, the depression and mental illness she would be battling, so by the end it unwittingly presents her suicide as a logical result of what other people did to her.

The drama encourages you to accept Hannah's victim mentality and her conclusion that her life is not worth living. And that's a dangerous conclusion for teenagers watching the show, especially for those thinking of taking their life.

As one teen said, "They never really talked about mental health. For someone to commit suicide means they're sick. The show doesn't talk enough about the sickness part of it. People who want to commit suicide aren't really angry and after vengeance. They're hurting and have lost hope."

And without a convincing portrayal of Hannah's mental illness, the series' narrative structure undermines the validity of Hannah's story. You wonder how a girl preparing to commit suicide could simultaneously put together such a complicated plan for retribution. As you listen to her narrate those 13 stories, she certainly doesn't sound depressed and despairing.

Ackerman writes:

Hannah's experiences of being bullied, assaulted, and shamed are all too common and certainly intensely painful. However, the progression of her suicidal behavior is simply not plausible. It is unrealistic for someone, especially a teenager in the midst of an emotional crisis, to construct an elaborate series of tapes all the while maintaining a sarcastic, witty, and glib tone toward people she blames for her decision to end her life.

The New Zealand Office of Film and Literature Classification actually created a new rating for 13 Reasons Why. Anyone under 18 is prohibited from watching the series without adult supervision. This will be impossible to enforce, of course, but it does illustrate the concern of a country with a high rate of teen suicide. The board said:

Suicide should not be presented to anyone as being the result of clear headed thinking. The show ignores the relationship between suicide and the mental illness that often accompanies it. People often commit suicide because they are unwell, not simply because people have been cruel to them. It is also extremely damaging to present rape as a 'good enough' reason for someone to commit suicide. This sends the wrong message to survivors of sexual violence about their futures and their worth.

4. The final episode's portrayal of the school counselor is especially troubling.

As the show portrays Hannah's downward spiral over the course of a year, it is clear that there are a number of adults who care about her—especially her parents. But she never tells an adult what's going on until, after recording most of her tapes, she meets with the school counselor. But he is distracted and misses the signs that she's in crisis, and she shuts down the conversation even as he pleads for her to stay. He is the 13th person on her list. She kills herself that night.

For adolescents watching this sequence, the obvious lesson is, "don't go to a school counselor with your problems." Phyllis Alongi, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, says, "I cringed when I saw that. It's Hollywood, it's not real, it's fictional. We just need to keep reminding kids that, because school counselors really do care and they know what to do."

5. Hannah's suicide is shown in graphic detail.

Toward the end of the final episode, Hannah settles into a tub, then slices each wrist with a razor blade. It's meant to be shocking and brutal, but many counselors and health professionals are objecting to the detail, calling it the equivalent of a "how-to video."

In a separate video titled 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, creator Brian Yorkey says, "We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide."

In a letter defending the decision, he wrote, "It was important for us not to look away from the most difficult moments … We wanted to be clear-eyed and honest. To do otherwise—to look away before it got hard to watch, to imply or aestheticize crucial events, to make it easy and safe for the viewer, would be to do a grave disservice to a story that is neither easy nor safe."

Perhaps the problem is that the adolescents the show's producers want to reach most are not "clear-eyed" or clear-thinking. In a blog post written by a counseling group in Nashville, the writer states:

We have many teenagers (and even some children) who have self-harmed in one way or another. It's devastating to hear them talk about the emotional pain that leads up to these acts, as well as the scars that are left as a result. Some of these kids talk openly about their struggles with self-harm in group. We want them to receive encouragement and support from their peers. We don't, however, want them to get ideas.

We know how susceptible adolescents are to images and ideas, especially those that are dramatic in their intensity and that might lean toward a 'quick fix.' And so, in our group counseling sessions, we don't allow them to talk specifically about how they've harmed. In other words, they can talk about struggling with the concept in front of other kids, but not share the specifics as to how or where. We're concerned that the graphic cutting scene in 13 Reasons Why can offer kids not just awareness, but too much information—graphic information on self-harm.

6. God is absent from the world of 13 Reasons Why.

No churches, no youth groups, no pastors. Not even any Christian students. Nobody reads the Bible or offers biblical wisdom beyond, "We need to love each other and care for each other."

Of course, this is a story of kids making the wrong choices. But you wish there could have been someone offering a ray of hope. Nobody tells Hannah that life is a precious gift, that God loves her with an everlasting love, that she is made in His image. She never hears that God can heal the deepest wounds.

Nobody tells her about the hope we find in Christ and His Resurrection. Nobody shares a verse like 1 Peter 1:3-4, which tells us: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you."

And when God is missing, the world becomes as bleak and hopeless as the one in 13 Reasons Why.

The law of unintended consequences

Some have accused the makers of 13 Reasons Why of glamorizing suicide, but it is clear that they set out to do the opposite—to make suicide scary and ugly. They want people to talk about it. They want parents to talk with their children.

"The whole issue of suicide is an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but it happens, and so we have to talk about it," says Jay Asher, author of the book that inspired the series. "It's dangerous not to talk about it because there's always room for hope." Selena Gomez, the popular singer who worked for years to bring the book to the screen, says, "We wanted to do it in a way where it was honest, and we wanted to make something that can hopefully help people, because suicide should never ever be an option."

These are worthy goals, but sometimes unintended consequences can outweigh the best of intentions. By taking viewers into Hannah's world for over 12 hours of screen time the drama invites teenagers to empathize with her and recall similar experiences. And since the film doesn't portray her depression and mental illness, and doesn't offer any clear alternatives for dealing with her trauma, it makes her final choices seem reasonable.

As Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, writes, "The appeal to suicide isn't that it might be fun. The appeal to suicide is that it might be an escape. This is what makes the message of 13 Reasons Why perilous. In order to provoke tragedy in a hurting teen's life, no one needs to make suicide glamorous; one only needs to make suicide plausible."

 

If you are convinced that life is not worth living, you need to know how God views your life. David Powlison writes of the hope we find in Christ and His resurrection in “Help for the Suicidal.”

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, talk with your parents, your school counselor, or your pastor. Or call a national hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Also on FamilyLife’s website:

A junior high school teacher writes of her observations of student behavior in “4 Reasonable Concerns About ’13 Reasons Why.’”

David Powlison offers “Help for Those Grieving a Suicide”

A FamilyLife Today series, “Aftershock: Hope, Help and Healing in the Wake of Suicide.”

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy talks about the aftermath of his teenage son's suicide.

Other online resources:

"One Reason Why People Are Watching ’13 Reasons Why’" by Julia Jeffress Sadler, girls ministry director at First Baptist Church of Dallas.

"Does ’13 Reasons Why’ Glamorize Teen Suicide?" by Russell Moore.

"What Parents Should Know About Teenage Suicide"

"Suicide from a Christian Perspective" from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Resources on suicide from the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

JED, a national nonprofit that seeks to protect emotional health and prevent suicide for teens and young adults, put together a downloadable list of talking points about ’13 Reasons Why.’


Copyright © 2017 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.



Meet the Author: Dave Boehi

Dave Boehi is a senior editor at FamilyLife. He has written one book (I Still Do), coauthored the Preparing for Marriage workbook, edited dozens of books and Bible studies, and produces the FamilyLife e-newsletter Help & Hope. Dave and his wife, Merry, live in Little Rock, Arkansas, and have two married daughters.

 

 

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