As a parent and a school psychologist, I pride myself on staying up to date. So when I asked my teenage daughters if they had heard about the newly released Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, I was shocked by their reply: “Dad, we just finished watching the last episode!”
Spoiler alert: The last episode is the graphic depiction of a suicide.
So I binge watched all 13 episodes. What I saw was an authentic and uncensored account of high school. Every topic I have dealt with in my career as a school psychologist (bullying, cliques, drugs, drunk driving, slut shaming, guns, sexual assault, and suicide) was covered in heart-wrenching detail.
The Netflix series, co-produced by Selena Gomez and based on a 2007 book by the same name, is a hit with adolescents. It’s the story of Hannah, a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes telling different parts of the story behind her motive. As the mystery unfolds, the series ensures that no subject is off-limits or glossed over.
Parents and professionals should know that our children and students are not only watching this show — there is a good chance they are living it. Teens immediately identify with how various individual choices and actions can combine to have outsized effects on people in high school. It made me think about whether impressionable viewers might romanticize the series. In the social media landscape of Facebook Live and Snapchat Streaks, creating “tapes for friends” that play out like a mystery to uncover your secret pain feels all too possible.
Shows like 13 Reason Why connect with young people because they see themselves and their classmates in those stories. This can be a good thing: it offers a real opportunity for youth to process the pressures of adolescence and consequences of certain choices. It also presents real risk. Research shows that exposure to suicide or to graphic accounts of death are triggers for suicidal thoughts and attempts among youth struggling with mental health disorders.
It is critical that as parents and educators we are aware of what are children are watching, reading and talking about, and are available to discuss what they are thinking and feeling. If we aren’t, we can’t prevent a potential tragedy or address underlying factors such as bullying
What 13 Reasons Why gets right, which can be as valuable to adults as it is to teens, is that there is no single cause of suicide. It most often occurs when multiple stressors exceed the current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition. The show does an impressive job of helping viewers see the missteps that people make every day. This is not to say that anyone is at fault for Hannah’s suicide, or that anyone can be at fault for the desperate decision of another person. But we can all help prevent it.
Unlike exposure to dramatized violence or self-harm, asking someone if they are contemplating suicide does not put them at increased risk of suicide. Quite the opposite; it gives us the opportunity to offer hope.
Every adult needs to recognize signs of a young person struggling and be ready to offer support. We must listen to our children’s stories without judgment and actively listen: understand, respond, and remember what they have said, putting our own agendas aside. We must give teenagers the tools they need to help a friend or themselves get support. And we can tell them, while watching 13 Reasons Why, that though it may seem like it sometimes, there are actually zero reasons to take your own life and many more to live.
Peter Faustino, PsyD, is a school psychologist in the Bedford (NY) Central School District and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of School Psychologists.
The National Association of School Psychologists offers guidance for educators on concerns raised by the series.