’13 Reasons Why’: Catholic Mom and Therapist Says Netflix Hit Is Problematic

Our Catholic-mom blogger Korbi Ghosh Biggins, who normally focuses on family-friendly fare, puts on her Marriage, Family & Individual Therapist hat to examine Netflix’s teen-suicide drama “13 Reasons Why.”

With so many options for entertainment available to teenagers and young adults today, a new series that catches the interest of the 12-to-17 and 18-to-24 demographics is noteworthy. On March 31st, Netflix released “13 Reasons Why” and it quickly became the company’s most popular show, breaking records in viewership and on social media.

Adding to the show’s cachet among the young is that one of the executive producers is singer/actress Selena Gomez, formerly of Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” (and former girlfriend of singer Justin Bieber).

Based on a 2007 book by Jay Asher, “13 Reasons Why” depicts the events that preceded the suicide of high-school student Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Hannah leaves behind a box of cassette tapes for her friend Clay (Dylan Minnette), which tell the story of the experiences and the people she holds responsible for her decision to end her life — experiences that include cyber-bullying and rape, as well as overwhelming pressure to live up to a specific standard of physical perfection.

With topics like suicide, bullying, sexual assault and a general lack of empathy or respect for others, being important and relevant to young people, it’s not surprising that the series is so successful and that it has garnered so much attention. However, writing strictly from a mental-health perspective, there are several problems with “13 Reasons Why” that are important for parents to consider before making a decision about whether the show is appropriate content for their children.

While the series certainly opens the door to explore and discuss difficult subjects with teenagers, it also portrays suicide —and the process by which a person may get to that place in life— quite inaccurately. “13 Reasons” depicts Hannah’s decision as an act of revenge against the people who hurt her or let her down. In reality, people at risk for suicide are very rarely thinking about others when contemplating or preparing to end their life. Suicide is a mental health issue and the vast majority of people at risk are suffering from a debilitating mental health disorder such as major depression or bipolar disorder.

Traumatic events, like being raped or mercilessly bullied, can certainly contribute to the onset of mental-health issues like depression. However, post-traumatic stress, depression and bipolar disorder are all treatable. There is a way out for those who feel trapped in hopelessness — ways that do not include suicide. Unfortunately, “13 Reasons Why” fails to give the viewer any credible insight into their options for seeking help, which is troubling and dangerous.

In fact, the series seems to effectively romanticize suicide. I would go as far as saying that, for the impressionable and possibly desperate, it glamorizes suicide to some degree.

Research shows that when a teenager commits suicide, the likelihood of other suicides increases. Suicide-prevention experts have long warned that sensationalizing a suicide or graphically detailing the means by which a suicide was carried out can lead to suicide contagion, otherwise known as copycat suicides. For this very reason, experts strongly advise media outlets and journalists to avoid explicitly describing the suicide method when reporting on a suicide.

Meanwhile, the scenes in which Hannah ends her life in “13 Reasons Why” play out in painful, excruciating detail. When you add to this the fact that young viewers are watching interesting and attractive actors play these parts, in a series which everyone seems to be talking about, the glamorization of the act increases.

Though I imagine it was not the intent of the producers of “13 Reasons,” the underlying message of the show is that committing suicide can provide a troubled teen with something that may be otherwise elusive: finally being understood and taken seriously.

As mental-health professionals, our responsibilities revolve around hearing and understanding our clients. Good therapists know that if a person feels understood, they feel hope. In the case of “13 Reasons,” choosing to die is what provides Hannah with the opportunity to feel understood. It’s a misleading and dangerous message for those who suffer from mental health problems — adolescents and adults alike.

I’m not saying the series is completely without merit. As I mentioned, it does raise several relevant issues for adolescents today. It could help to open a dialogue between parents and children, perhaps even help parents gain a clearer perspective of the pressures and challenges that kids are facing today.

It also underscores the importance of treating others with kindness and respect, and emphasizes the deep impact that gossip and rumors can have on a young person. But because there are several heart-wrenching and graphic scenes which depict controversial and difficult topics, it is my opinion that no teenager should be left to view and process the series alone. More importantly, anyone struggling with mental-health issues, including those who are prone to depression, should steer clear of the show entirely.

If you do feel that your child is mature enough to handle the series and they have expressed an interest in doing so, I encourage you to watch the series with them so that you can discuss the thoughts and feelings that come up as the story plays out.

It is a devastating story, which will evoke emotional reactions from even from the most healthy and stable adult. It’s vitally important to let your kids know that you’re there for them and that you want to hear what they’re thinking, feeling and experiencing—whether they watch the series or not.

CatholicLink has done a nice job of outlining several talking points that may help start the conversation between parents and children. CatholicMom also put out a comprehensive list of resources..

In addition, take a moment to educate yourself on the possible symptoms of depression: declining performance in school, withdrawal from friends and family, lack of interest in activities or events, lack of energy or motivation, sadness, hopelessness, anger, agitation, low self-esteem, lack of concentration, restlessness, changes in appetite or sleeping patterns, substance abuse—and the warning signs of suicide or suicidal ideation, which can include talk of hopelessness or being in unbearable pain, feeling trapped, having no purpose, being a burden to others or displaying extreme mood swings.

If you, your child or someone you know is struggling with severe depression or thoughts of suicide, don’t hesitate to seek the help of a mental health professional who is trained in suicide prevention. Reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 24 hours a day at 1 800-273-TALK (8255).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gomez has given interviews defending the intent behind the show, which will return for a second season (and it might do to remind youngsters that whatever happens to her friends down the line, Hannah’s decision means she won’t be there to experience it).

Image: Courtesy Netflix

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