I have not been as conflicted about a show as I am about the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, a series based on the novel “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher which details the reasons a high school student comments suicide. Initially cast in the starring role, Selena Gomez championed the project as a co-producer.
Suicide is perhaps the most devastating event for a family and community. In addition to the grief over the sudden loss of a loved one or friend, there are also feelings of anger toward the deceased as well as guilt and tremendous self-examinations over “what I could have done.” Suicidal ideation is one of the most complex and difficult conditions to experience, treat and understand. The decision to end one’s life is usually the result of a blizzard of often competing emotions in response to life circumstances. Theses situations and resulting emotions can alter brain chemicals that lead to, or compounds the effects of depression which, over a period of time, leads to distorted perspectives of life and one’s situation.
The taking of one’s life is objectively illogical and the worst option available. However, subjectively, to someone who has borne the pain and weight of extended depression, and entered the tunnel where things that bring light to life and reasons to live have faded away, ending one’s life can be a logical action. People often say that the deceased had so much to live for. While this is true, to them, it wasn’t their experience was not that truth. Not only is there distortion regarding the reality of their life and the options available to them, persons who choose suicide often believe that those in their life will also be better off without them as the deceased will no longer be a burden. All of these factors are compounded for teenagers whose brains, and therefore emotions and impulse control, are not fully developed.
13 Reasons Why is a story in which a high school junior, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has killed herself, but rather than leaving a note, she left tapes in which she detailed the reasons behind her suicide. The tapes depict the behavior of 11 classmates whose treatment of her resulted directly or indirectly in her becoming the object of shame and ridicule in her school. Two other tapes are for two persons whose inactions prevented her from pulling out of the tunnel in which she saw suicide as the only option to find relief from the pain she was experiencing.
In the story, each of the 13 persons is directed to listen to all the tapes and then pass them on to the next person on the list. The story begins with her friend, and on again off again object of her affection, Clay Jenson (Dylan Minnette) as he receives and begins listening to the tapes which are presented visually in flashback.
Producers of the program believe that the subject of teen suicide and many of the resulting triggers, bullying, peer, and family pressure are important subjects to present to teens, parents, and others. The devastation for Hannah’s parents, though present, is thought by many who are critical of the program to be understated. The heartbreak of Clay, who had hidden his true feelings for Hannah, is presented more effectively as he agonizingly listens to each tape. Some of the impact of the effects of Hannah’s suicide on others is lost in the overly dramatic presentation of the other persons on the tapes trying to conspire with one another to keep the reasons, and their involvement in the suicide secret. This portion of the series plays more like a mediocre detective show and takes away from the expressed desired effect of the program.
The program is more effective in informing parents, whose high school experience did not include the realities of cyber bullying, where there is no safe zone nor opportunities to escape the harassment and shame. Unlike the impact of rumors whispered from ear to ear, in the cyber age, unflattering photos, taken casually, with little or no knowledge of the victim, can be distributed to everyone in the victim ’s community and circle of friends and classmates in an instant. Today, one surreptitious snapshot is the basis for digital rumors, the evidence of which is easily retrieved, replayed, and kept in the forefront of thoughts and conversations in a school or other community for days, weeks or even years. Explicit subject matter and instant availability of cyber bullying can lead to predatory actions including sexual assault, two of which are presented in the series.
13 Reasons Why can offer teachable moments, when adults/parents and teens watch it together. Teens can experience a reality of the devastating impact suicide has on families and communities. Parents can experience the unrelenting social pressure to avoid becoming a target and subject of bullying, and the unimaginable difficulty it is to have a target removed. The program shows the all too common reality that, for many students, the chosen method of not having a target on yourself is to put one on someone else. Where there are these and other benefits of communal viewing , that the program is 13 episodes makes watching the program with youth difficult, something requiring intentionality and, one of the other things around which there is incessant pressure, time.
One area of conversation that could be engaged as a part of watching the program with youth or adults is the place of faith in living life. Resurrection hope and life is at the core of the Christian faith. While resurrection life includes the everlasting life in God’s Kingdom, it is something that is and should be a part of life here and now. Resurrection faith is that which helps one get through the valley moments in life. Belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and defeated the death of Good Friday offers persons of faith the Easter hope and assurance that God can help one overcome or endure the challenges of life here and now. If God could overcome death there is hope that even the most challenging periods of life can be endured and overcome. The resurrection demonstrates that in God transformation of life and circumstances are possible. Faith in God’s transforming grace and power can be a ray of light that cuts through the darkness that is depression and suicide ideation. This reality can be powerfully communicated when discussed in community or groups, and should be a part of a faith group’s viewing or discussion of the topics of the program. Parents and leaders should watch the entire series prior to deciding whether to watch with their youth or youth groups.
My primary concern about the series is for those teens who will watch the program in isolation and not have the benefit of sharing and processing with others. This concern would be for any program dealing with this topic. Teens that are in the midst of crisis, especially those who have distorted perceptions of their reality and have, or are at risk of developing suicidal thoughts, may misinterpret the actions of the characters and story plots and experience them as validation for their thoughts and perhaps plans. Offering to watch, or re-watch the program with teens who may watch, or already watched the program alone could be a way to help address such misperceptions.
One last observation. Hannah’s suicide depicted final episode. It is very graphic, and after spending 13 episodes getting to know Hannah, it is among the most difficult scenes I have viewed in some time. Netflix has signed for another season of 13 Reasons Why.
The suggested rating is TV-MA LSV, mature audiences for Language, Sexual situations, Violence. There are disclaimers for the episodes containing the graphic scenes.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide please call a local suicide hotline or call 800-273-8255