There’s a new Netflix series out there, and it’s causing a lot of noise on social media. 13 Reasons Why is the fictional story of Hannah Baker’s life and death. More specifically, it’s about the people and events that (according to Hannah) caused her to commit suicide. Based on the young adult novel by Jay Asher, the Netflix production has caused quite a stir for what many see as an irresponsible portrayal of a very difficult topic, a portrayal that includes what The Washington Post describes as a “stomach-turning suicide scene.” Despite the series receiving positive reviews from media critics, mental health experts across North America are expressing concern, and a number of Ontario schools boards issued warnings to parents, advising that young children not watch the show and that teens wanting to watch the show do so together with their parents.
The problem with 13 Reasons Why is not its topic. Teen mental health needs to be examined, and anything that opens up conversation in a responsible way can only be a good thing. The problem with the series is its treatment of the topic, and the fact that producers elected to show Hannah’s suicide on screen. Experts, including a number of health professionals who were asked to consult on the series, worry that such a scene could act as a “trigger” for viewers who are particularly vulnerable.
Model Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael Jackson, attempted suicide in 2013 and has since worked in suicide prevention. She called the scene in question “an extremely triggering thing to watch,” and cautioned her 1.3 million Twitter followers: “Please only watch this show with caution and keep in mind that it may put you in a dark place. If you are struggling please don’t watch it.” One of Jackson’s Twitter followers queenoftheimps replied that 13 Reasons Why glorified suicide, tweeting: “It really tries to drop the message ‘hey if you die’ everyone will realize what a beautiful, tragic figure you are…and they will regret everything they did to you.” It’s the romanticizing of Hannah’s story that has many concerned.
In an article for Flare, Dr. Marshall Korenblum, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families in Toronto, and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, commented that the series is “well-intentioned, great acting, very good drama, and will definitely spur conversations about suicide and bullying.” At the same time, Korenblum believes, “it misses the mark in terms of giving any kind of message of hope, the value of therapy or trusting adults, and sensationalizing death and suicide.”
In Canada, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds, and remains the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24. Teens Talk 2016, a Canada Kids Help Phone report, surveyed 1,319 youth, and found that more than one-in-five (22%) seriously considered suicide in the past year, and among those who considered suicide, 47 per cent did not speak to anyone about it, and 46% had formulated a plan. The report also found that girls (67%) were twice as likely as boys (33%) to consider taking their own lives.
Like Korenblum, I believe one of the biggest problems with 13 Reasons Why is its failure to deliver a message that help is available and that hope exists. In fact, one scene that received particular criticism from mental health experts involves Hannah’s meeting with the school guidance counsellor who fails to recognize the seriousness of the situation and seems to blame Hannah for some of her troubles. That is, without doubt, the opposite of the message we want students to hear.
Like most schools, ours works hard to provide both help and hope. I believe we are an exceptionally caring and supportive community, but I also believe we can always do more. Strengthening our circle of care is, in fact, a focus for us as we look to next year. We have plans in place to expand our guidance and student support programs, build wellness and mindfulness more deliberately into our day, and add greater opportunities for each girl to strengthen her physical, emotional and spiritual health. As the Head of School, I care equally about our faculty and staff, and am working hard to develop similar types of supports for them.
Like all buzz-worthy shows, 13 Reasons Why will eventually be pushed out of its number one spot by some other binge-inducing series. But for as long as it remains part of the media zeitgeist, I hope it can be used to promote careful and responsible conversation. Let’s send a message of help and hope to those at risk, and work hard to strengthen our collective circle of care for all our youth.
Kids Help Phone Line: 1-800-668-6868