‘13 Reasons Why’ Scared The Shit Out Of Me — And It Should Scare You Too

Credit Wikimedia Commons
The popular Netflix series is, chillingly, the ultimate fantasy of teen suicidal ideation.

M y 15-year-old son is not a television watcher. He plays video games, watches the occasional YouTube video, and can be bribed into reading a book — but television shows are just really not his thing. But for a week or so this month, he was obsessed with a show. 13 Reasons Why is a new Netflix series based upon the book of the same name. And if you haven’t heard of it, go ahead and ask the nearest teenager — they are all talking about it.

Last weekend, I took the kids on a weekend getaway to Portland, and I finally got to see what the fuss is about. Sharing a hotel room, my son wanted to finish up the series, so he pulled up the last few episodes and we watched it together. The show is a gripping mystery, full of drama and suspense. I can see why teens and young adults have been raving about it.

And it scared the shit out of me.

(Spoiler alert: To talk about these important issues, I’m going to have to give away some important plot points.)

The saga — which tells the story of Hannah, a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes, each one describing a different person who is responsible for her suicide and why — unfolds like a classic whodonit. Each episode you are left wondering, “Who is next? What did they do? Whose bad deeds and secrets will be revealed?” The central protagonists of the show are Hannah and her friend Clay, who is devastated by the loss of his friend and listening to her tapes to try to figure out what happened and how to hold those responsible accountable. As you spiral downhill with Hannah and see all the ways in which she was mistreated, you become more and more personally invested in Clay’s quest for justice.

But the “justice” in this show is the suicide of a teenage girl. The “justice” is her suicide letter, recorded over 13 tapes. I kept looking at my son as he watched these teens lament the ways in which they had treated Hannah, and talk about the things they would have done differently. I told my son to avert his eyes (I can’t remember the last time I had to do that) as Hannah’s suicide was brutally displayed onscreen, almost as a “how-to.”

Finally, the show ends with Hannah saying that nobody tried hard enough, nobody cared enough to stop her. And now everybody knows it, because she left behind these tapes. Now they are all sorry.

The show ended, and I was absolutely terrified for my son. My son had just watched the ultimate fantasy of teen suicidal ideation. He had watched an unhappy teenage girl kill herself, and in doing so, throw all of those who had harmed her into deep regret and shame while the ghost of Hannah got to say, “Why didn’t you do anything about this while I was alive?” He watched suicide as successful revenge.

And because my teen had already survived a past suicide attempt a few years earlier, it was the absolute worst message for him to receive.

The ‘justice’ in this show is the suicide of a teenage girl.

The show ended, and I said, “We need to talk about this. What did you think of the show?”

He absolutely loved it. He said it really showed how bad things can get, and how cruel teenagers can be. He said it highlighted the impact that teenagers can have on each other.

I told him that my concern was that some people, people who were in the space that he had been in a few years ago, would watch this show and think that suicide was the best path for them, too, and that it really would make the people who had hurt them sorry. I told him that (especially with the scene where Hannah does make a last-ditch cry for help and decides to talk with her school counselor and he turns her away, cementing her decision to kill herself) this show would discourage some teens from getting help for their depression.

Credit: Facebook

My son’s answer was a punch to the gut: “Well mom, I think at that point there really was no turning back. Her life was over and she would have never been able to have a happy life again. Too much had happened.”

I asked my son, “But what if her mom had walked in before it was too late? What if they got her to the hospital and got her help, and she got to share her story without killing herself?”

He answered, “She would have felt like that was just another thing she failed. It wouldn’t have helped her.”

My son — my beautiful son who has spent the last three years telling friends to reach out for help if they are feeling suicidal, and who has used his own story to let kids know that even if they think it won’t get better, it can — was momentarily turned fatalist by one very addicting narrative of suicide-as-revenge. (Editor’s update: On July 31, 2017, The Washington Post reported that the show may have caused a surge in online searches for suicide, including how to do it.)

My son was momentarily turned fatalist by one very addicting narrative of suicide-as-revenge.

We talked more, and I reminded him of how he had once felt the same way about his own life, and how that did not turn out to be true. I reminded him that in real life, Hannah would never see those who had hurt her be held accountable. In real life, the people who would be consumed with guilt and pain would be those who were closest to her and loved her the most. I reminded him that suicidal depression is rarely just the culmination of the bad things that people do to you, that it is often heavily impacted by brain chemistry — as his own depression was (indeed, mental illness is the leading risk factor for suicide). I reminded him of how those brain chemicals can lie to you and tell you that things will never be okay again, but with the proper help, things can get better. Most importantly, I reminded him that Hannah deserved to live — and that the chance to heal would have been a greater victory than the revenge that she didn’t live to see.

At the end of our conversation, with the memories of what he had been through fresh in his mind, my son said, “Mom, I think I want to help these kids, kids who are just like I used to be. I want to do that with my life. What sort of education will I need for that?” I tried my best to not break down in tears right then. My son, who even with his improved mental health has struggled to see “the point” of adult life, was actually thinking about the future and saw a place for himself in it.

But if we hadn’t taken this trip when we did, if he wasn’t in the midst of the show when we were on vacation, I would never had watched the show with him. We would have never had this conversation. The narrative of this addictive and engrossing show would have been the only narrative he would have received. And the thought of that has been keeping me up nights.

It’s not just my son I worry about; one in five teenagers in the U.S. seriously considers suicide annually, and it’s the third leading cause of death among those age 15–24. And while 13 Reasons Why has been touted as a much-needed portrayal of this very serious issue, its set-up as a revenge fantasy is dangerous; one study that examined teens who had attempted suicide found that seeking revenge was one of five main determining factors. “Several adolescents explained the aggressiveness of their act as a way to make other people feel guilty for their deaths and made the vindictive intent of the attempted suicide very plain,” researchers noted.

We can’t keep every bit of harmful messaging away from our kids, and honestly, if I had shut off the television when I started to realize how problematic the show was, it would have practically guaranteed that my son would have finished the series alone and not have talked with me about it. Which is why, when I think about all the other teenagers out there struggling with mental health problems and suicidal ideation who are eagerly devouring every episode of this series right now, I want to alert every parent to the messaging that they must be prepared to counter. Suicidal ideation is contagious, especially with teenagers whose brains are not yet developed to the point to see past their immediate troubles and are more likely to make rash and devastating decisions to end their pain.

If you have a teenager, or if you work with teenagers, please talk with them about this show. Don’t let them watch it alone and even if they have, make sure that you are having an honest conversation about the realities of suicide and depression. Make sure they know all of the resources that are available to them if they are feeling depressed or suicidal. Make sure they know that they, just like Hannah, deserve to be heard, deserve to be helped, and deserve to live.

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