In a world where news headlines change dramatically at lightning speed almost hourly, perhaps the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, seems like an already irrelevant topic of conversation or discussion. As a therapist who had to watch most of the episodes for a work-related responsibility, the content of the show persists in my subconscious and continues to draw my attention even several months later. Seeing this series as a parent of teenagers, as well as therapist, challenged my perception of the social impact of this show and was distinctly different than what I anticipated.
For those unfamiliar, 13 Reasons Why is a series devoted to the voice of a deceased teenager who leaves tapes of her recorded voice challenging the listener to finally hear her pain, her sadness, and her reasons for ultimately dying by suicide. She places blame and responsibility squarely on the shoulders of her supposed friends and staff at the school, prompting deep introspection and confusion by those highlighted in the recordings.
The national reaction to the show was fast and furious. The series was seen as a “suicide trigger,” condoning the act of taking one’s own life, and romanticizing the act of suicide. Per local reports in Pennsylvania, hospitals saw an increase in suicide attempts, and local school districts are grappling with a slew of young teens who died by suicide. The response from psychologically minded professionals responded to the irresponsibility of Netflix to release this style of programming, and the profession scurried to respond and create increased access to resources, guidelines for parents to talk to their kids about suicide, and general suicide prevention education.
But for the group of therapists who reviewed this series, our reaction was distinctly different. While the emphasis on suicide was an obvious focus, the issues raised–for us–was not what we expected. As we moved through the episodes, some at a faster pace than others, we identified several key takeaways that had little to do with suicide.
First: High school is hard. Really hard. Our students are facing a world with increasing exposure and risk. The prevalence of technology leaves our children exposed and vulnerable to pictures of them in compromising positions being shared at will and at the whim of teens around them. They live in a constant state of awareness that anything they say or do can be captured and shared without their consent. This exhausting state of hyper-arousal is a new reality for our children. And it’s a frightening and endless position to be in.
Second: Our kids feel very alone. Each of the characters continues to seek meaningful experiences, but each feels alone, and in their own way, isolated from others in their communal experience. Even the highly popular students were struggling with feeling connected to others in their group, hiding meaningful parts of their life experiences from each other. This must be magnified exponentially for teens who struggle socially or have a hard time making friends and navigating the social world of teenagers. Our kids are seeking a space for safety and vulnerability, a place for them to be real and open with another person without fear of retaliation or breach of confidence, which can be challenging to find in the high school environment. If the high school experience fails to provide relationships for a child to be safely vulnerable and connected with a trusted person, where in community are we offering that option to help our kids survive and thrive?
Third: In the series, there was a missed opportunity at every turn for the students to act as “upstanders” and not just “bystanders.” They didn’t find the strength to withstand social pressure of the bullying environment and continued to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of their classmate. Too often, the series depicted the characters turning away from scenarios that were abusive or aggressive, and chose not to intercede or stand beside the victim. What failure in education and moral development are we experiencing that dampens the possibility of a rescue from the pain of the bully’s bad behavior?
And finally, there was so much opportunity for connection that was missed throughout the dramatization. Parents who made multiple attempts at connection yet did not find the avenue to open the door for conversation, and a school therapist who didn’t step forward enough toward the child seeking answers.
The tragedy of this series is not just the reverberations of suicide curiosity, and even suicide attempts, but it’s the missed opportunity. Our teenagers are not able to share with us the depth of the struggle that they face daily in their social experiences, so we must create opportunities to listen to their silence. Instead of focusing exclusively on the irresponsibly portrayed suicide, we must look deeper into the accurate portrayal of a teen’s life in this generation, and realize our responsibility and obligation to step up and intervene.