This post contains reference to suicide and self-harm.
“It was so easy for her, why can’t it be that easy for me? I think I’m going to try it her way, you know run a bath and cut my wrists.”
This was the conversation with a young person that sparked my need to watch 13 Reasons Why, (the Netflix show based on the book by Jay Asher).
Over the weekend I watched the entire thing in one sitting, then read all the opinion pieces, some on how good it was at raising awareness, the others on how potentially damaging it is to young people’s mental health.
I think I fall somewhere between the two.
I think parents need to watch this.
13 Reasons Why is the most talked about show on twitter this year, young people are watching it and talking about it and being drawn into the world of Hannah Baker. They care about her and her friends, she is just as real to them as the people they go to school with. So, when on the documentary written for the show “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons” Dr Rona Hu, a Psychiatrist at Stanford University of Medicine says “People are at a higher risk of suicide if someone they know has died by suicide” that’s concerning.
Our young people feel like they know Hannah, she is their friend. She is a compelling character, she looks like a teenager, talks like a teenager and her experiences are not that far off the mark from what any teenager could experience in school.
If you want a glimpse into the lives of young people this is it.
The stories ring true for so many that I’ve worked with. These are young people’s experiences. Sometimes as adults we can be dismissive of the culture that our young people are living in and we shouldn’t be, it’s harder for young people now than it has ever been before.
So when we see Hannah commit suicide in the final episode it’s like they are watching a friend take their final breath, and the impact of that is huge.
Social media, instant communication, these things have a direct impact on our young people. One comment from a person at school could be the thing that makes or breaks their self-esteem.
That’s what this program shows. The impact our actions can have on others.
And as adults we need to sit up and listen to the stories being told, and be willing to have the conversation with our children and young people about these things. When was the last time you talked to your child about consent and what it looks like? What about the last time you talked to your child about self-harm? When was the last time you talked to your child about their friendships? Have you ever spoken to your child about sexting?
13 Reasons Why makes us aware of these issues and as adults we need to wake up and pay attention and be prepared to have those sometimes difficult conversations.
However, this show is also dangerous and our teenagers don’t always have the ability to separate fact from the fiction.
My concern is that many will think that suicide is a viable option to the hardships they face, there is no finality when Hannah Baker dies, she lives on immortally through the tapes, she’s dead but she’s still talking. They might think that we can blame our decisions on everyone else instead of taking responsibility.
I am all for raising awareness around mental health and self-harm but that is not what this show does. What it does is tell a one-sided story of a girl blaming her friends for why she chooses to commit suicide. There is no exploration of her mental state. She talks about her emotions twice throughout the whole thing. With minimal exploration of where those emotions lead, we don’t know if she’s depressed or struggling with anxiety, we just assume that she might be.
The only emotions we fully engage with, are the ones left behind, her mother is portrayed incredibly well, a heart-breaking performance, heart-breaking because it’s realistic.
Netflix showed a graphic suicide scene, a how to guide to end your life. This goes against all media guidelines that tell us how to report on suicide, including never describing what happened. They tell us to avoid sensationalist headlines or images of the scene. Here we get to watch the whole thing.
Our young people see a suicide in its entirety.
The reason the media is told not to portray suicide this way is because people copy. Those who are already struggling will get advice on how to kill themselves, they will see it as an option as someone they cared about did it. We know this because we’ve seen it, when Kurt Cobain died, people asking for support due to suicidal ideation skyrocketed.
Hannah’s story is not realistic. Whilst the things that happen are things that happen to teenagers across the world, rarely would it all happen to one person. At no point in the story does Hannah take responsibility for her own story, she blames everyone else for what happens to her.
At any point in the show Hannah could have asked for help, real help, actual support. Instead she waits until the very end and the show gives a poor depiction of what help can look like.
I know this because I give help every day, and I don’t let suicidal young people walk out of my room without a follow up, I listen, as do countless other youth workers, teachers, parents, counsellors and online support.
Hannah didn’t want the help. But the help was there.
Hannah’s final words were “Some of you cared, none of you cared enough. Neither did I. Goodbye”
And this just isn’t true, Hannah didn’t give people the option to care and she pushed away the ones that did. By the very nature of her story we see the pain of the people that did care and would have been there for her. We see how much people cared by the heart-break her parents and her friend Clay went through.
We need to show young people that we do care, that we can trust adults and we should make people pay attention to how we feel, and as adults we need to be able to listen and respect what they need to say. To know how to respond.
What do we learn from this? We must engage with youth culture, understand what our children are going through and not dismiss it. We must ask people how they are doing and listen to the answer. We must teach people to take responsibility for their actions, and not blame others. We must teach people that suicide shouldn’t be the answer and that there is, good, support out there for them.
As adults this is our responsibility, let’s not dismiss this story because of the things we don’t like about it, let’s do better because of the things that ring true about it.
Young Minds is a place you can go to for further advice.