Have you heard about the new series”13 Reasons Why” which discusses adolescent suicide and could be seen as romanticizing the idea of suicide? If not, I discuss some of it in this article and encourage you to explore what it means for you.
One of the things I found myself frightened by, while training to be a psychotherapist, is the reality that so many within our population (primarily adolescents) seek to kill themselves. In fact, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among teens. The reasons for wanting to die are often varied or diverse, but the ultimate goal seems to be the same. The ultimate goal is to either escape something, overcome internal pain, or end the “madness.” The desire to take one’s life may also be motivated by external challenges such as bullying, low income, divorced parents, abuse, trauma, mental illness, etc.
I once had a client (who gave me over 13 reasons for why she wanted to kill herself) seek out shows, movies, or books similar to “13 Reasons Why.” She was desperately seeking validation. I will not discuss her case here but I encourage you to tune in to my webinar on reasons for why kids and teens consider suicide. But for the purposes of this topic, I will be highlighting 13 reasons why families and adults should re-consider embracing the novel or the series.
Katherine Langford is the actress who plays “Hannah,” a young girl who decided to take her life through suicide. After Hannah takes her life a male peer, Clay, finds a mysterious box of recordings from Hannah on his front porch. Those recordings highlight the 13 reasons why she killed herself and who to blame for her death. Jay Asher, producer of the novel version, has a website dedicated to the unhealthy novel. Sadly, Asher is not a mental health professional and I question if there are mental health professionals helping to produce this material (primarily to adolescents who have either already contemplated suicide or have attempted it). The scary part about this series is that teens are often watching it alone, without adult perspective.
As you know, there are so many reasons why adolescents (and even adults) consider suicide. Each reason is different, but nevertheless still heartbreaking. For teenagers in today’s society, suicide is a remedy to a short-term problem (that may seem long-term in the moment) such as being bullied or teased, having a reading disorder or other disorder that affects learning, having braces or an injury, not being asked to prom, struggling with identity, parent-child conflict, hormonal fluctuations, etc. The fact that suicide may seem to be an immediate remedy can hold our teens hostage for quite some time. That’s why am I saddened by the fact that 13 Reasons Why misses the mark and misses an opportunity to educate and support.
I remember seeing a teenager for therapy and hearing her mention suicide at least 12x during a 1 hour session. She was almost obsessed with completing the act because she was romanticizing a short-term remedy to a short-term problem which was her parents divorcing. She could not see the fact that a divorce did not mean the end of life. But for her, suicide was a way to experience relief from the temporary pain of transition and change.
Unfortunately, books and series like these can lead teens to make drastic, impulsive, and dangerous decisions about their lives. A lot of education and resources need to be prompted along with these types of series.
As a result, I have listed 13 reasons for why you (or a teen you know) should re-think watching “13 Reasons Why:”
- It romanticizes suicide: Suicide has always been a taboo topic, especially for older generations. Teens today are much more open about this topic with their peers. Teens tend to find the topic “risky” and “taboo” at times which makes movies, documentaries, personal stories from fellow-peers, etc. interesting and romanticized. The fact that someone wants to take their own lives can intrigue vulnerable, immature, and impulsive teens. Why would we encourage suicidal thinking for 15 minutes of fame and approval by the adolescent population (just to have an intriguing series or book)?
- It’s content can cause teens to fantasize about their “crush” and consider drastic ways to get this person’s attention: Most of my teen clients have some kind of problem getting the attention and affection of a male peer they really like. One client came to a session with me and her father to beg us to help her find a creative or easy way to get the affection of a boy she “had a crush on” for 5 years. Once she got up enough courage to ask him on a date, it was too late. He had already been dating her rival for 2 years. What did my client do? Slit her wrist, spread it around on social media, and manipulated her way into the hospital.
- It ignores the reality that some suicides go unrecognized and life goes on without the teen’s memory: Some teens, primarily those who attempt to kill themselves for attention or to manipulate, may find this series as helpful for “teaching” them how to gain that attention. Adolescents, who will most likely be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in adulthood, may find the novel and series on NetFlix “educational” to help them achieve their greater purpose (i.e., a relationship with a boy or girl, attention from parents, care from hospital staff, etc). What teens fail to realize is that life doesn’t stop once they commit suicide. The only life that stops is theirs. Some schools don’t even acknowledge the suicide of a teen unless the entire school will be affected in some way. Most schools provide education to families, counseling or support, referrals to mental health professionals, and send condolences to the family. National or community attention may never occur.
- It romanticizes the idea that there is the ability to make their “ultimate message” known after death by leaving clues or “reminders” of their life behind: I once worked with a teen who wrote suicide notes every single day in school and would bring them to sessions to share with me how obsessed he was about suicide. He smiled as he discussed his thoughts of suicide which were gruesome to say the least. This young man was very ill but he felt that his suicide (if he could attempt it “with little pain”) would send an ultimate message to the world about love and peace. He felt that his suicide would be sacrificial in some way. Although this young man was psychotic and had experienced trauma at the hands of his biological parents, he did not fear suicide and was open to trying it.
- It’s creepy and eerie: Who would want to watch a series or read a novel (other than curious teens) about suicide and the 13 reasons why Hannah killed herself? Listening to the tapes alone sends a chilling feeling up my spine. Despite me having very close experiences with teen and adults contemplating or attempting suicide, I could hardly stand to listen to the clips provided on the eerie website of Jay Asher.
- It isn’t written by someone who is qualified to fully discuss (or produce content on) the devastating reality of teen suicide: Parents and families must understand that this series and novel is written by someone who has absolutely no training in psychology, psychiatry, counseling, or mental health. Would you trust your next door neighbor to talk to your teen about suicide? I certainly would not unless they had a personal experience which could shed light on hope for a better future, works in the field of counseling and psychotherapy or psychiatry, and/or is spiritually-minded and able to offer hope and insight. Other than that, Jay Asher must be careful with what he writes and consider the devastating messages his content may be sending to vulnerable teens.
- It seems written for vulnerable teens who find the topic fascinating or interesting: The book and series both cater to adolescents who can not only relate to the product but who might also become obsessed with it and purchase it. No adult is going to purchase this book or watch the series unless they are completely oblivious to the topic, cannot see the negative connotations of the series and book, or who are fascinated themselves about the topic. It is obvious that Asher’s audience are vulnerable teenagers.
- It may give vulnerable teens with personality disorders or a strong need for attention ideas: As stated above, the book and series caters to teens and we all know that teens struggle with impulse-control, mature decision making, intense emotions and desires, and emotional/hormonal fluctuations. If a teen has a mental health problem or personality disorder, this book and series can do nothing more than encourage the teen to mis-perceive the negative consequences of suicide. A teen with borderline personality disorder may become very obsessed with this topic and attempt to “live it out” in some way to “remedy” a situation they feel defeated by.
- It’s another barrier parents have to “fight” with their kids about in order to protect them: Parents and families who are protective, supportive, and attentive will most likely not allow this book and series into their homes. This will create unnecessary strive between families and their teens because teens want entertainment or something they feel they can relate to. Parents and families want nothing more but to protect the mind and emotional development of their adolescent. This is unable to be accomplished by a series and book that can most likely morally divide families.
- Its producer should have consulted with a mental health professional in order to be more socially responsible and “therapeutic”: If this book and series was written to provide knowledge, to build insight, and to stimulate conversation, Asher should have consulted with a mental health professional (or researcher) on how to make this book informational, educational, and helpful to families. Although I cannot say with a 100% confidence that Asher did not consult with a professional about this topic, the series and book speaks for itself. I doubt there was consultation prior to releasing the book and series.
- It seems promoted for profit: As I stated above, the audience is clearly adolescents and there are a great number of ethical and safety concerns I, and many other mental health professionals, have about this series and book.
- It dismisses the power of copy-cat suicides: Copy-cat suicide is a real phenomenon and can affect an entire school district and community. Copy-cat suicides happen for multiple reasons but it appears, in my experience, that the main reason is power and attention gained from this irreversible act.
- It needs to be removed from NetFlix of all places (or re-purposed to include education): NetFlex has always been a wonderful place to find movies, documentaries, etc that families can watch and enjoy. Why would NetFlix, of all movie platforms, promote (by airing) the series? I liken this to chucky-Cheese deciding to promote (by supporting) adult content. Something is “off” here and NetFlix may want to revisit the reason for allowing this series to be easily accessible to families and their teens.
Call to action:
If you are as concerned by this series as my esteemed colleagues and I are, I urge you to contact NetFlix to encourage them to be more socially responsible with the content and provide opportunities for viewers to access mental health resources if needed. Sadly, we cannot control their content, neither can we stop the production of these films. But what we can do is encourage NetFlix and other networks to wisely consider the pros and cons of these kinds of series and to promote the seeking of support and help.
Click below for a preview of Hannah’s reason for taking her own life. Could you support a teenager reading the novel or watching the series?
Share below how you feel about this series and if you would let your teen watch it.
I wish you well