McNerney: A Counselor’s Take on ‘13 Reasons Why’

By Neil McNerney
Parenting with Purpose

The new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” has been generating a great deal of discussion lately. In short, it is based on the story of a 17-year-old who takes her own life and leaves a series of audio recordings for 13 people who were in some way involved in why she killed herself.

The premise is extremely alarming: There are 13 reasons why Hannah kills herself, and none of the reasons seem to be depression.

My first thought in watching the first few episodes was dread. It took me awhile to get up the wherewithal to watch. As a father and as a counselor, it was extremely painful to see the story play out. As with many shows, it depicts the parents as well-meaning but ineffective.

I’ve asked some teens and young adults about their thoughts on the show, which I’d like to share:

“I feel the show glamorizes ‘suicide.’ The show provides justifications for committing suicide and allows some folks to believe that ‘suicide’ is an acceptable outcome/solution. If there were some people on the fence about suicide-or depression- this show might trigger the thought that suicide is a solution to challenging times.” —Hannah

“The show is not trying to “romanticize suicide” or put all suicides into one box, it is trying to get at the core point that we all need to just be nicer to one another. I am blessed enough to never have been the victim of bullying, but I see it every day. And maybe not in the stereotypical form of bullying, I’m not watching kids getting shoved into lockers or dunked in the toilet. But bullying with words. With rumors. With the way we talk to each other, to the people we call our friends. The slut-shaming, the rumors, the gossip that spreads like wildfire thanks to social media.” —Alex

“Many people my age (18-25) see it as a show that accurately shows what happens in high school and that many teenagers do experience bullying and other serious issues. Many adults (30 and up) however see it as detrimental conversation around mental health.” —Liz

Clearly, this show has had a polarizing effect. My opinion is that there are no detrimental conversations around mental health.

What does the show do well? It does a good job of showing the devastation that a suicide leaves behind. It explains the heart-breaking loss, the questioning, guilt, and anxiety of those left in the wake. It explains, as Alex stated above, how mean we can be to each other.

Neil McNerney

My biggest concern is for those teens who are dealing with high levels of stress and have had thoughts of suicide. Binge watching 13 hours of a story about a traumatized and bullied teenager was extremely difficult, even for me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to a teen who might be dealing with depression, anxiety, and bullying.

The National Association of School Psychologists gives an excellent recommendation:

“We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help.”

What is the main risk factor for teen suicide? Mental health issues, especially depression, is the main factor to watch for. Depression shows up a bit differently with teens than with adults:

  • Significant sense of sadness
  • Significant irritability
  • Isolation
  • Negative comments about life
  • Loss of interest in sports, hobbies, etc.

The website youthsuicidewarningsigns.org is an excellent resource for parents.

Many parents I have spoken to have watched the series with their kids. This has allowed a very healthy dialog within families. These conversations can be hard and awkward, but very important. Would I suggest that your teen watch this series? No, I wouldn’t recommend it. But I also know that a part of being a teenager is to do those things that parents forbid. It puts us in a bit of a bind. A good response might be: “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to watch this, but if you do, I’d like to watch it with you so that we can talk about it.” For those teens that are struggling, I would strongly not recommend watching this series.

Will the series increase to conversations about suicide? I sure hope so. If our goal is to increase awareness of this very important topic, then these conversations are a good thing. But the cost seems too great. There are other ways to address teen suicide that can be more effective and lead to better conversations. For instance, the rock opera “A Will To Survive” is an excellent local performance for teens and their parents. Although their season is completed for the school year, they are already gearing up for the fall. Keep an eye for performance dates.

[Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor in private practice and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.]

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