If you haven’t watched it or heard all of the chatter regarding it, 13 Reasons Why is the latest Netflix hit. The show depicts the events leading up to – and shortly after – the suicide of its main character, Hannah. Hannah leaves a series of tapes for 13 people who she feels “played a role” in her demise – either implicitly or complicitly. Further, the series graphically shows her suicide and the reaction of her parents afterwards. Those who work with youth at risk are advising that parents take extreme cautions in letting their children watch this series or not watch it at all. There are fears that watching the show will lead to copycat suicide attempts.
It’s an interesting suggestion, and certainly the concerns are well founded. However, what if we used this series to prompt conversations with the young people in our lives regarding their mental health and well-being? Or if we started conversations to determine if they know what to do if a friend expresses the same concerns that Hannah does? What about us? Do we know how to have these conversations with the young people in our lives – or if they express difficulties to us do we effectively shut them down, articulating that “high schools is hell for everyone”? The thing is, it does seem to be much harder to be a young person today. The pressures are different then when I was the age of my children. Social media increases the need to “always be on”, to “look great”, to make your life seem better than everyone else’s and to get the most likes. Social media further changes the landscape of bullying, and the role of the bystander.
I have watched parts of the series, and yes, the scene where Hannah ends her life is graphic. But equally graphic, and worthy of our attention, are the events leading up to her death. The multitude of times she tried to talk to people and get help, and there was no follow through. We do not do a good job of educating our young people about how to be mentally well, what happens if you are not, and how to seek help for yourself or others. There have been discussions about the need to address mental health in the elementary and secondary school curricula – which then leads again to concerns that having such conversations will “lead to suicides”.
But we do need to be talking about this, we do need to provide young people with the tools needed to cope with life events. I’m not sure that downloading this content to teachers, along with everything else that gets downloaded to them, is the best way to address this. I do think we need to educate our young people more effectively regarding mental health and wellness, and how to get help if you need it. But, I also think we ALL need this education! We need to think about language and its impact. For example, not using terminology like “I’m so depressed I cannot buy those shoes” or “ I’m going crazy”. We need to talk openly about being mentally well or unwell, and listen to our friends and loved ones who express a need for help. We need to know what tools to access in those instances.
So yes, 13 Reasons Why does contain graphic content and difficult subject matter, but so does Grey’s Anatomy. Rather than saying young people should not be watching it, we need to ask ourselves why we are so uncomfortable with the content. The same concerns are not being raised regarding graphic content depicting other illnesses. In fact, we use those to have conversations around prevention, and detection. Think about the impact of movies such as Still Alice. I don’t know about you, but I can think of more than 13 reasons why we should be watching this series with the young people in our lives and having difficult conversations with them.
About Kim English
I am a Registered Nurse, and Nursing professor with a passion for addressing mental health issues amongst youth. My specific areas of interest are assisting those with mental illness and on the autism spectrum navigate post secondary education and career entry. I also serve as an advocate for rural and Indigenous youth mental health issues.