You know a TV series is controversial when schools all over the world, including many in British Columbia, have warned students about watching it. Critics have already highlighted the cautions of watching Netflix’s original series 13 Reasons Why, such as how the show can be triggering for people who struggle with suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, self-harm, sexual abuse, bullying, and many other issues that young people may face. In addition, 13 Reasons Why has also been criticized for romanticizing and glamourizing suicide, and that it portrays the aftermath of a suicide in a very unrealistic and fantasized way.
Despite all this, I admit that I still managed to watch the entire series, not because I’m a fan of teenage drama-mystery, but more so to better understand and help those who have been disturbed by it. After watching 13 Reasons Why, I’ve identified 5 important lessons that may be helpful to look at especially if you, or someone you know, are struggling with similar problems.
*Possible spoiler alert: Examples provided are from the show.
5 Important Lessons from 13 Reasons Why
1.) Teens need to have supportive adults in their life who are NOT their parents.
Throughout the entire series, Hannah Baker (main character) was constantly struggling to find someone whom she can trust and talk to. The viewer can only wonder what would have happened if Hannah had more consistent, supportive, and responsible people in her life.
It has been well-documented in research that one of the protective factors for mental health in teens is for them to have adults in their life who are caring, supportive, and engage in positive and healthy behaviours. These adults can often include people like youth leaders, grandparents, uncles, aunts, coaches, teachers, and so on.
What would be even more beneficial is for young people to have adult mentors who would intentionally walk along side of them and help them get through life’s turbulence. These mentors should be adults other than the parents because very often the parents can be part of the teen’s stress and mentors can help them understand more about the adult’s perspective. Moreover, advice that is given by an adult mentor is usually received more openly and differently than when it is given by a parent— even if the message is the same.
2.) Parents need to matter more than peers.
Another issue portrayed by 13 Reasons Why is the problem today of young people turning only to their peers for advice, instruction, and modeling instead of turning to their parents or other responsible adults. I am still surprised that none of the teens who received and listened to Hannah’s cassette tapes turned to their parents or other responsible adults earlier for advice on how to deal with them. Instead, they turned to each other and began plotting schemes on how to keep it all a secret.
Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist and author, construes in his book “Hold On to Your Kids” that in order for a child to be open to being parented by an adult, the child must be actively attached and want to be in contact and closeness with the adult. In other words, who the parent is to the child is more important than what the parent does. This crucial parent-child attachment relationship serves as a secure base and safe foundation for the child to venture out into the world, and to retreat back to when needed.
Many problems may arise when young people do not have this essential parent-child attachment and they replace it with their peers. Parents may lose their parenting authority over their child and the child may become more distant from the parent. Peer relationships are also not the most stable or secure ones, especially in high school. There can be devastating effects when this foundation based only on peer-relationships crumbles and there is no other safe base left to retreat to.
Lastly, although it is important for young people to have friends their own age to talk to, young people do not always give each other the best help or advice in life especially when they are still going through it themselves. More than ever, parents need to put more focus on building closeness with their child so that they will matter more than their peers.
3.) Learn how to identify suicidal risk.
It is unfortunate how the high school in 13 Reasons Why didn’t seem to have talked about ways to identify suicide risk until after the incident. I wonder how many schools in real life are the same. Just like how many people are taught ways to identify a stroke or heart attack, I believe that it is just as important for people to learn how to recognize signs of suicide risk. Having been trained in conducting suicide risk assessments, it was an interesting experience going through the show and trying to identify the signs.
Below is a quick mnemonic (“IS PATH WARM”) created by the American Association of Suicidology to help people remember the warning signs of suicide. Remember to always seek professional help or call 911 if you ever worry about the safety of an individual. Also, feel free to check out the crisis section in our resource page for more ways to get help.
4.) There is often more than one way to get help for any given problem.
The scene of Hannah Baker’s final attempt to get help from her school counsellor before committing suicide raised many concerns. Most school counsellors and any other mental health professional in real life are usually much more competent and helpful than what was portrayed in the show. Even if Hannah found the school counsellor to be useless, it is important to note that there are many other ways to get help in real life, which the show failed to emphasize.
There are multiple community resources outside of the school where one can get help such as crisis and suicide phone lines, online help chats (youthinbc.com), the hospital, your family doctor, and community mental health walk-in clinics. Whether you live in Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, Delta, Surrey, or any other parts of Greater Vancouver, each community should have their own mental health team that can provide support and counselling for all types of mental health challenges. Be sure to check what resources are available in your own community. There’s often more than you think!
5.) Remember that high school won’t last forever.
People sometimes become suicidal when they feel that there is no hope and that there is no escape from their problems. Hannah started feeling this way after multiple tries to overcome her problems. Without a doubt, high school can be some of the most difficult years of one’s life especially if the student is being bullied or is hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Teens are trying to figure out who they are while at the same time try to fit in and navigate the social nuances at school. School-work may also become more difficult and stressful, and students become more and more anxious about their future. There’s a lot going on in high school! The good news to all this is that one day high school will be over, and you will have more control over who you see each day and who you want to surround yourself with in life. There will also be more freedom in choosing what you want to do for school or for work. Just ask any adult and see what they say.
So, to those who are having a hard time at school, remember that high school won’t last forever and that you do not have to walk through it alone. There is help. There is hope.
Johnny's passion is in helping children, youths, and families restore mental wellness. He is a registered clinical counsellor and has worked with children and teens for over 10 years in various settings including government child and youth mental health, non-profits, and faith-based communities.