Despite the many trigger warnings I saw on Facebook, when I found out the subject matter of “13 Reasons Why,” there was no getting around watching it. I work with adolescents as a mental health counselor and they are all watching. The show deals with important and real issues and suicide, sexual assault, slut shaming, abuse, and alcoholism are at the forefront.
As an adult watching the show, it triggered me on every level. I am a survivor, a parent, a counselor who works with teens, and I suffer from depression. The show follows the story of Hannah, an insightful teenage girl who takes her own life. She tells her story through 13 tapes she has recorded, each tape describing a different peer that has hurt her and contributed to her decision to take her life.
We each have a piece of Hannah in us, some more than others. The instances described by Hannah and the events that led her to feel so alone brought me back to my own high school loneliness. I knew what it was to feel like no one could understand your sadness. I’m not there anymore. I’m an adult who sometimes feels lonely or gets bouts of depression, but one who has learned how to cope and shares that with others as a therapist. Middle schoolers and high schoolers, even college students who are watching are in it. They are watching this show and going to school the next day, noticing the pieces of their experience that match up with Hannah’s.
In the age of Netflix, shows are completely accessible to any audience. This show was at the top of the cue for teens, and the fact that Selena Gomez was involved as an executive producer, likely added to their urge to watch it. Shows on Netflix don’t have to sensor like shows on regular television channels do, so this particular show chose to play out rape as if it were really happening. I still have the image of a character lying there, dead in the eyes. Graphic suicide was also played out, though it wasn’t sensationalized or romanticized, every detail of how it happened was shown, possibly prompting copycats. Those of us who suffer from depression can see the peace Hannah experienced, the end of her struggle, and some may yearn for that. In fact, the re-traumatization from the show may make some yearn for it once again.
The message is important. Understanding suicide is important. Those who don’t have a grasp, who have never felt this way, may think it looks like an easy out, but this story shows us it is anything but easy. Unfortunately, the message was carried out graphically on a viral level. While the graphic episodes warn of their nature, these warnings are likely to be ignored by both teens and adults — I know they were ignored by me. There is also a discussion following the show but after the intensity of the final scenes, the discussion seems to much to bear.
I have already seen the negative repercussions of this show with teens that I work with. In all the interwoven stories portrayed, I saw Hannah’s parents. Though my daughter is young, I envision her in high school. I worry that I will pass down my depression and she will struggle as I did. I worry that I will pass down my curves and she will struggle as I did. I worry that she won’t tell me what goes on at school because she won’t think that I can understand. I wonder how I will tell her that I do, that I was there once. I have already begun to ingrain in her that her body is her own, but I won’t be able to stop someone else from overpowering her. I won’t be able to stop the hurtful comments of her peers. I can arm her with knowledge, but I cannot protect her. I can share my struggle but know she might roll her eyes and say, “mom, that won’t happen to me,” but it might.
The days might get too hard for her to bear, I remember those days. I can look for signs but she might not show me. I might even be looking for signs that aren’t there because she is a reflection of me, but we are not the same. I can remind her that she survived yesterday so she can make it through tomorrow, but she might not believe me. I can let her know I walk beside her, but I will not always be able to walk next to her.
As much as I want to be the parent who is easy to talk to about anything, I don’t know that I will. Like Hannah, all of us have secret parts, and our children must keep those secret parts for themselves. I saw her parents’ surprise — how could this happen? She showed her parents the parts of herself she wanted them to see, the parts that let them know she was still their baby. How do we let our kids know they don’t need to be, and won’t always be, what we want to see? We need to let them know they will feel things they don’t want to, they might feel the most uncomfortable feeling of all, nothing. We need to let them know the only thing they must be is themselves. They can’t control what others do or the emotional repercussions, but we can let them know our communication lines are open no matter what we hope not to hear.
Perhaps the most upsetting thing of all, was the portrayal of Hannah’s school counselor. She placed this man as her last hope but he didn’t listen to her direct symptoms of suicidality: hopelessness, no longer caring about anything, and feeling numb. He placed the blame on her for what she was feeling rather than showing empathy and actually seeing her and hearing her cries for help. This showed viewers there is no point in seeking help because no one at all will understand. Her peers couldn’t understand, her parents couldn’t understand, and even the school’s on site mental health professional fumbled through a session, drowning out the ringing alarm bells.
Just as all of us hold pieces of Hannah, any of us could be her parents. No parent will ever fully know or grasp their child’s pain. We can hope they will be happy but we cannot hope the happy in to them. We cannot change mental illness but we can educate ourselves and know no child is immune–neither are we. We can instill hope in our children and let them know there is more than one way out.
If you or someone you know is suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you or someone you know has been triggered by “13 Reasons Why” and is seeking a crisis center in the Austin area, visit NAMI Austin.
If you have been triggered or are seeking counseling NAMI Austin provides local resources.
The JED Foundation has created a list of talking points for parents to discuss “13 Reasons Why” with their children.
If you are concerned your adolescent or teen may be struggling with mental health issues visit teenmentalhealth.org.