Let’s Clear Something Up About 13 Reasons Why

As an academic in Psychology, and a therapist, I was fascinated, enthralled and totally frustrated by the show 13 reasons why; a show which has gained much notoriety and controversy for I) promoting suicide, II) being unrealistic, and III) being so harmful, it was denounced by  youth counselling organisations. I was prompted to consider the ramifications of this show when some of my younger clients began discussing it. Since then, it has become clear to me that this show should be openly discussed and shared, not hidden, discouraged, or suppressed. Here is why:

You can’t throw a stone in any direction on the web and not hit a story about 13 Reasons Why. Recently however the news coverage took a turn for the worse when one news source reported the suicide of two teenagers, the deaths of which, their parents suggested, were encouraged by the show 13 Reasons Why. Allegedly, the teenagers watched the show just days before hanging themselves. One parent described the show as ‘very graphic,’ and ‘You can’t convince me that they were trying to attract attention to the issue of teen suicide by showing a little girl killing herself. There’s nothing positive about that.’ The Australian mental health youth foundation Headspace have said the following

“People have said the show has triggered their own vulnerabilities and made them consider whether suicide is a possible option for them,” and went further to suggest that show also gave an unrealistic perspective on the repercussions of suicide and emphasised an unsafe “they’ll be sorry in the end” view.

In contrast, and in response to this news Netflix have released a statement suggesting that they have received positive feedback that the show has opened up a dialogue with people about teen suicide. The writer of the show suggested

‘Many people are accusing the show of glamorizing suicide and I feel very strongly that we did the exact opposite. What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging.’ The creators went on to say “We wanted to begin by telling the truth about what effect these events would have and we felt we could tell a story, not only with integrity, but hopefully one that had a chance to resonate with young people who don’t necessarily get a steady diet of truth in their entertainment,” he said. “We wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide.”

Clinical Psychologist Helen Hsu worked with the cast and crew during production and has stated that it was important to show that suicide was not pretty or easy, and this is what the show did “The pain never ends for her parents immediately thereafter, who are left with this horrible burden,” Dr Hsu said. Likewise Dr Ellis, a Clinical Psychologist  has written an extensive article about her perception of the show, based on her own clinical judgment, and working with adolescents of that age group. Working with a similar age group, I am inclined to agree with the thesis of her argument, which can be summarised thus:

“The series is an opportunity for us as parents, clinicians, counselors, teachers, school systems, and youth to begin a dialogue. It is a jumping off point and should not speak for itself” (Ellis, 2017).

Certainly, I see both sides of the argument, and of course like anyone, I sympathise for those who were triggered by the suicide portrayed on the show. In the end, it is a controversial show, it is going to make waves, and because of that, it is going to speak positively to some and open up a dialogue, challenge others, and have negative consequences for more still. Intended, or not.

However, from discussing this with my clients, and parents of teenagers, I concluded something I felt was clear to me from the onset:  This is not a factual documentary, which is promoting some ill-informed research. This is a narrative, told from the perspective of a teenage girl. Narratives are based on the individual’s subjective lived experiences, and thus hermeneutic lens of the individual. They are imperfect, and at Hannah’s age, based on a lack of a fully formed sense of self, egotistical, and an immature decision making process, relatively speaking. This is not in any way used to offend of patronise individuals of that age group, this is simply psychological fact, based on broad, generalised statistical knowledge and hypothesis testing amounting to decades of psychological literature, one such recent example is described by the American Psychological Association.

13 Reasons Why shone a light on one such narrative, told by a person suffering in an imperfect world, surrounded by people who did not handle her suffering properly, including Hannah herself. Why does this particular narrative need to be seen as a blanket statement about how to deal with suicide? Don’t get me wrong, when I observed the therapist dealing with the client inappropriately, and thus hindering, not helping her, I was screaming and yelling at the TV. My heated rant directed at the therapist must have gone on for several minutes, because my partner had to hit pause button so we did not end up missing the whole show. But is that not the point? More importantly, is that not how many teenagers view adults in helping positions? We may not like it, but this show could be displaying what it is like from a teenager’s perspective. Perhaps he did deal with this inappropriately; perhaps she saw it through her own tainted goggles, frustrated with being abused, ignored, and picked on. Story tellers like to display events how the main characters view it, such as Netflix’s The Unfortunate Series of Events, or George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. It gives us insight into a person’s cognition we might not otherwise experience; qualitative psychologists, such as myself employ this research technique to gain rich insight into the sense making of individuals for these very reasons. But just like the audience members of this show, researchers can take a step back from observing the individual’s sense making, and look at it critically; is this person making bad decisions, because of their current situation?

Do I like the way the therapist comes off? No, I do not. He was dangerously inept at his job. But do I accept that some teenagers may experience this? Of course I do, just because we do not like it, does not mean we should attempt to hide it.

Do I like the way the main character used revenge in an attempt to hurt others with her death? No, but again, this is a great way to challenge this thought process. The show demonstrated that her decision was misguided, the results not what she probably wanted, and ultimately she made bad decisions, because she was suffering.

Hannah did control people’s lives, and yes, it was a way for her to be in the spotlight, even if it was for a short while, and yes, this can be appealing to those who feel ignored, dehumanised, rejected or misunderstood. But personally, I do not feel the suicide scene, or the aftermath was glorified. In fact, I found it very difficult to watch, such was the explicit and brutal nature of it. Her mother’s suffering and pain was all consuming, her frustration, anger, sadness and desperation became her life.

Ultimately I think my point is this:  a dozen adults who have attempted suicide, or thought seriously about suicide may disagree with how this show explores suicide. However, their statements do not negate this narrative as somehow objectively wrong. Its imperfection starts an important discussion about suicide, and in point of fact, gives me, as a therapist, a great way to discuss with younger clients about distorted, or unhelpful, and dangerous cognitions and behaviour, and to challenge the element of the narrative dedicated to revenge. Also, let us be honest with ourselves, this show is out there, whether we like it, or not. Sweeping it under the rug, and painting it as controversial will do little to stop teenagers watching the show, and in fact will likely cause the opposite reaction. Let us not put practicality on the back bench to ideology when discussing suicide.


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