13 Reasons Why NOT

I watched 13 Reasons Why, so you don’t have to.

You’re welcome.

I wanted to write about the show, but I wanted to know what I was talking about it. So I binge watched it last weekend.

I strongly urge you not to do the same.

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix series about a teenaged girl, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide. Hannah leaves behind 13 audio cassettes detailing 13 reasons — really 13 people — who led her to kill herself.

I thought the first few episodes were very good. The device of having Hanna “narrate” via the tapes is very effective, and draws the viewer into the drama. At first, I also thought that this show could be an effective platform for sparking important discussions between parents and teens.

But then, three or four episodes in, I changed my mind. I didn’t have 13 reasons, but I had three very good ones:

First, the series suddenly got very explicit. I believe it was the fifth episode that finally gave a warning that the show contained explicit material, and was not suitable for younger audiences. But by that point, I had already seen way more porn use, masturbation, homosexual experimentation, etc. than I cared to see. Thanks to the handy-dandy heads up, I knew to fast forward through graphic depictions of not one but two sexual assaults, and then the suicide itself. But I saw enough to know that nobody, of any age, should be allowing those images into their heads.

Shows that talk about important, difficult topics can be a valuable springboard for discussion. But graphic sexual and violent depictions are entirely different. Those images have tremendous power. Our brains are wired to react strongly to them. When we put in our heads , they tend to stay in our heads. They “imprint.” Especially for children and teenagers who are still relatively innocent, this can be extremely disturbing.

Second, the series took me to a very dark place, very quickly. It’s hard to describe, except to say that it was very ugly. I wanted to take a shower — with holy water. It lasted the entire weekend, whether I was watching the show or not. If I felt that way as an adult woman, how would the same show impact young, impressionable kids?

And third, I have zero doubt that this show is going to lead to far more suicides than it prevents. In fact, school districts are already reporting an uptick in suicide threats among elementary and middle school students since the series debuted.

I don’t think the producers intended this. I saw the “Behind the Reasons” documentary afterward, where they all gave earnest interviews about how important this work is, and how they are saving lives by telling this story.

And I thought, “Could you all possibly be this stupid?”

Hannah’s tapes are a great literary device. They also, unfortunately, offer the perfect “suicide as revenge” fantasy.

In life, Hannah was overlooked. Boys (well, most boys) saw her as an object. Girls saw her as an annoyance, or a competitor. But in death, she becomes the star of the school. Her locker becomes a shrine. Her life and death become the school’s sole topic of conversation. She is suddenly “popular.”

What more, thanks to the tapes, she is finally in control. She calls the shots from beyond the grave. She turns the tables on everyone who hurt her, and completely upends their lives.

Hannah gets her revenge.

Of course, the show depicts her parents’ anguish, and all kinds of other fall-out that a clear-thinking, well-adjusted person could see as potential downside to ending one’s own life.

But suicidal teenagers are neither clear-thinking nor well-adjusted.

Once, years ago, I was present at a spontaneous “rally” for a high school student who had killed himself. His classmates took turns standing up to talk about him — how wonderful he was, how much everybody loved him, how sad they were that he was gone. The kids had created t-shirts with his name emblazoned on the front, and one boy even had the same design tattooed on his chest. I could practically see the wheels turning in the heads of some of the more marginalized students. “Wow, I’d love it if all of these people gathered around the flagpole to say all of those nice things about me.”

Suicide is contagious. Research consistently shows that one person’s suicide can reinforce a vulnerable person’s motivation to join them. And when those at-risk kids see that person’s status elevated from high school loser to posthumous celebrity, it intensifies that effect. Couple that with a dramatic depiction of successful post-mortem revenge, and all the discussion in the world won’t override suicide’s seductive appeal.

There is a reason why mental health professionals everywhere are issuing warnings about the series. The JED Foundation, a suicide prevention organization, declined to endorse it, saying they couldn’t support a show that amounted to “one long revenge story.” Michael Jackson’s 19 year old daughter Paris, who herself has attempted suicide, called the show “extremely triggering.” The National Association of School Psychologists has advised teens who have had suicidal thoughts to avoid the series entirely.

I’m hearing about a lot of parents who are watching 13 Reasons Why with their kids. Please know that I believe that watching shows about hard issues can be a great springboard for discussion.

But I don’t believe this show is the right vehicle for that. In fact, I believe it’s dangerous.

Yes, kids are already facing issues like these. Yes, I believe that you need to discuss them. A lot. But I also believe it matters what images you allow into your kids’ heads. Violent, sexual images and graphic depictions of death should not be among them. Nor should long, dramatic stories about suicide as an effective vehicle for revenge.

Your kids need guidance. They need discussion. But they don’t need this.

Featured image courtesy of Netflix

COMING UP: Catholic leaders urge extreme caution for new Netflix series

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Based on the 2007 young adult novel by the same name, “13 Reasons Why” follows the story of Hannah Baker, a troubled 17 year old who took her own life.

But instead of leaving the typical note, Hannah leaves 13 cassette tapes, explaining the 13 reasons why she took her life – and each of these “reasons” is a person, who either did something to Hannah, or didn’t do enough, according to her.

The creators of the Netflix original series insisted in a follow-up video that 13 Reasons was meant to be helpful – to bring up important conversations about serious topics like suicide, bullying and assault, and to get viewers talking about solutions to suicidal thoughts.

However, suicide prevention groups and youth leaders have raised concerns because the show is particularly popular among a teenage audience, and teenagers are a vulnerable population.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the CDC. Studies show that publicized suicides may also trigger a ripple effect of additional suicides within communities.

The show has also faced backlash from mental health experts, who say it fails to follow several of the “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” a list of guidelines for media outlets developed by suicide prevention experts and journalists. Experts advise against sensational headlines or describing a suicide in graphic detail, which studies have shown can lead to suicide contagion, or “copycat” suicides.

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a U.S. non-profit suicide prevention group, has also said that the show may do “more harm than good.”

Life Teen, an international youth ministry program, released a video and a written message to young people, warning them of possible triggers in the show and of the inadequate ways it addresses suicide and mental health.

In her message to young people before they watch the show, Life Teen’s Leah Murphy warned against the way the show portrays Hannah’s suicide as simply the fault of those around her.

“Nowhere in the series is mental illness explicitly discussed or dealt with and the audience is left having been told that the people around Hannah Baker are responsible for her death because of their actions or lack thereof,” she wrote.

“While bullying, not saying anything when you see depressive or suicidal signs, and sexual assault are serious issues and can drive people to suicide, the reality is that suicide is rarely something avoided by good sentiments alone. It’s been reported that 90% of all suicides are committed by people who experience diagnosable mental illnesses. The vast majority of suicides can be traced to actual health issues, not just bullying or traumatic events. These health issues, actual, mental illnesses require a lot more than the presence of a good friend or the absence of any serious issues or struggles – they require serious, professional help.”

The fact that these aren’t addressed in any straightforward manner in the series is a problem, Murphy said, because Hannah ends up being portrayed as a kind of “heroic martyr” who leaves a lesson and a legacy behind.

Murphy urged anyone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts to reach out and seek help.

Someone who commits suicide “doesn’t become a hero, gain control, and acquire any power by identifying the people around them as reasons for their suicide,” Murphy wrote.

“Suicide will always be incredibly hurtful to countless individuals, but most tragically hurtful to the person who takes his or her own life – a life that was mean to continue, that was full of meaning, purpose, and infinite worth.”

Chelsea Voboril, the director of religious education at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Smithville, Missouri, told CNA that she watched the show and addressed it with her youth group. She was troubled that most of her teens thought the 13 reasons Hannah gave were legitimate reasons to end her life.

Voboril said they were able to discuss how Hannah never approached her parents or a doctor or psychologist about the loneliness and hurt she was experiencing. Voboril was also able to discuss mental health and culpability for sins with her youth group, who asked if everyone who commits suicide goes to hell.

When watching these kinds of shows, Voboril said she tries to take the approach of finding the “wheat in the weeds” or finding the good among the bad – something she’s borrowed from Catholic speaker Christopher West.

The show attempted to have a moral compass, Voboril said, and its “wheat” includes good messages: “Rape is wrong, suicide causes pain, everybody is bearing a cross,” she noted.

“But the weeds are dangerous. And subtle. Sex outside of marriage, turning to substance abuse, free will being limited by others actions or circumstances, let alone the huge issue around how to talk about suicide in a safe yet poignant manner.”

At the end of the discussion, Voboril said she begged her students to watch it with a parent or other adult, if they were going to continue watching.

But “(for) persons whose consciences may not be well formed or who can be triggered by any of the big issues, I would hope that they avoid it.”

Owen Stockden, a spokesman for Living Works, which specializes in suicide intervention trainings, told CNA that one of his biggest concerns with “13 Reasons” was the portrayal of inadequate and unhelpful responses from the adults in the show, particularly the school counselor and teachers.

“In the show, Hannah’s guidance counsellor has a very ineffective response to her thoughts of suicide,” Stockden told CNA.

“As an organization, we train many guidance counsellors and teachers around the world to respond compassionately and effectively to thoughts of suicide. There is always more to be done, and a recent study…suggests that schools would benefit from increased suicide intervention training for staff, but in the vast majority of cases, teachers and counsellors are alert and sensitive to the needs of their students,” he said.

“It would be tragic if 13 Reasons Why led young people to believe that their concerns would be ignored if they approached a responsible adult.”

Having a popular show discussing the issue of suicide provides the potential for helpful conversations and the addressing of important issues, “but only if it is discussed in a thoughtful and responsible way,” Stockden added.

For Catholic screenwriter and associate professor Barbara Nicolosi, another issue with the show is that none of the characters have a sense of or ever mention a transcendent or loving God, something that she says her own students lack.

“The show wants to attribute all the problems of youth to social media and bullying, but refuses to consider that those things are just symptoms themselves.  The loss of faith, the (loss of the) conviction of a loving personal God, the loss of a sense of eternity, all of these things make suicide a logical response to suffering. Our kids are not dumb,” she told CNA.

Nicolosi said she saw the value in the anti-bullying messages of the show, but she also worries it could lend power to suicide.

“…I am worried that the character of Hannah does seem to have some power in wreaking revenge on her persecutors through her suicide. In the end, I think the show is close to a wash in terms of whether it will do good or harm,” she said.

Dr. Jim Langley, a Catholic psychologist with St. Raphael Counseling in Denver, has read the book and seen several episodes of “13 Reasons Why.”

Because of the mature content on several levels – language, sexuality, topics of suicide and rape – he said he would be hesitant to recommend either the show or the book to anyone other than mentally healthy adults.

He also said that there were several things that the story gets right – namely, that people you may not expect in your life could be at risk for suicide, and the devastating impact suicide can have on the people in your life.

However, where the story goes wrong is that it tends to romanticize the idea of suicide and fails to adequately address the impact mental health played in Hannah’s decision to end her life.

Dr. Langley said he also worried that the show went too far in suggesting that the people in Hannah’s life were at fault for her suicide. Bullying, rape and assault are terrible things to have happen to someone, and there is some benefit to showing that your actions “can harm and influence other people.”

“To some degree we all have responsibility to other people, but in some ways the show goes too far, and makes it sound like we have responsibility for the other person. We’re responsible to the people in our lives, to treat them well. But the people who hurt (Hannah) were not responsible for her choosing to commit suicide.”

“Most people who commit suicide – almost everyone has a severe mental health problem. And the show does not portray this girl as having severe mental health problems in the way that somebody who is contemplating suicide almost always has,” he said.

Warning signs for suicide include severe, ongoing depression and social isolation. A suicidal person may mention something about wanting to end their life, or start giving away their belongings as sentimental gifts. Another warning sign includes a deeply depressed person who is all of a sudden very happy, brought about by a sudden sense of freedom if they have decided on suicide.

The show’s ultimate message is that the solution to teen suicide is that everyone needs to treat the people in their lives better, which is a positive message but does not go far enough in addressing mental health issues, Dr. Langley said.

One of the most important things adults can do, Dr. Langley said, it to talk to the children in their lives about this show and about suicide and other issues.

“I think that especially with teenagers, they are exposed to so much in today’s culture, that it’s our job as parents and educators about those things and to provide real, accurate information and to provide them with the truth,” he said.

Often adults can worry that they will over-expose their children to heavy issues by having these conversations, but for the most part, the internet and social media and the culture at large have already done that, Dr. Langley noted.

“So as parents and educators, we’re not overexposing them by talking about the issues, we’re going to help them process it and discern the truth in it. And I think it is really valuable to talk with teenagers about mental health issues.”

One thing that was “starkly missing” from the book and the T.V. show, Dr. Langley said, was Hannah’s parents, who seemed loving but at the same time were largely unaware of Hannah’s experiences at school and her interior experiences.

“So it’s so important for parents to play a really active role in their kids’ lives, even though a teenager’s number one priority is to individuate from mom and dad, which is healthy, you still have to be involved and talk with them and let them know that you care and that you’re invested in them. Don’t be those absent parents that Hannah’s parents appeared to be in the show.”

If you think you or a friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts, ask for help from someone you can trust and/or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available 24 hours everyday). For Catholic counseling, contact your local priest, diocese or your local branch of Catholic Charities.