By: Melanie G. Crumpler, LCSW
There has been a lot of press, discussion and debate about the “TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY” series that has been streamed on Netflix starting in March 2017. The series is loosely based on a book by the same name, written by Jay Asher and released in 2007. In the book, Asher artfully tells a tale about a teenage boy who is grieving the death of his friend and former crush after she committed suicide, only to find that she left him and 10 other peers a series of 7 cassette tapes (13 sides). In the cassettes, the girl explains events and conversations involving each of the recipients which contributed to her decision to take her own life.
This article is NOT a critique of the series. It is intended to provide information to parents and guardians so that they may be informed about the series. This article is being written after careful review of the book, the associated website, and after viewing all 13 episodes of the first season of the series (at the time this article is being written, a second season is in the process of being developed). This article comes after MUCH discussion with other professionals (i.e. educators, counselors, doctors, nurses and parents), and teenagers who have watched the series, as well as teenagers who have opted NOT to watch the series. The following assessment represents my OPINION after coalescing all of the information gathered from the above mentioned sources. I would respectfully encourage you to form your own opinion about the series and the book:
REASON 1: The series is WELL written and WELL acted! It is my opinion, and that of most teens I have spoken to, that it is the most REAL illustration of High School today. It very accurately portrays peer pressure, the impact of texting and the world’s tendency toward NON-VERBAL communication as the primary way to “talk” to one another. The language used is consistent with what most teens report hearing in local High Schools. The influence of partying, sex, alcohol and drugs is also descriptive of what local teens face almost daily. Finally, it does a good job of illustrating the demands related to the academic side of school, as well as the interaction between students and teachers, Guidance Counselors and school administration. This interaction includes, but is not limited to, the differentiation placed on students based on their involvement in school activities, the school’s response to bullying and other peer interactions, and the amount of attention given to students based on their academic performance versus those who are not performing academically.
REASON 2: The series covers a variety of topics pertinent to teens today, and does so with graphic detail. The struggles highlighted in the series include (but is not limited to): academic demands and performance; participation in school activities; struggles with friends, boyfriends, girlfriends; social status and how it affects the teen emotionally; same-sex parents; same-sex teen relationships; sex between teens, including rape; use of drugs and alcohol; texting as the primary mode of communication; sharing “pics” and the impact that action has on the person photographed; abuse within the home and how that impacts the teen; family financial struggles and how that impacts the teen.
REASON 3: WARNING!!! Every episode of the series includes adult language. Several episodes include sexually explicit content. The 10th and 12th episodes include graphic rape scenes. The final episode includes the main character’s suicide and the attempt of another character. This show is NOT FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES! No teenager or individual struggling with any of the issues listed in Reason 1 watch the series without adult permission AND supervision.
REASON 4: Despite a great deal of media attention preceding the release of the series, parents and professionals were caught unprepared for the worldwide impact it has had on the viewing audience. In the first week after the initial release of the series, it was referenced 3.5 million times on social media (Refinery29.com). On Twitter alone, in the 1st week after the series was released, there were 3,585,110 “tweets,” making it “the most-tweeted-show” in history (fizziolog). There has been A LOT of press, both verbal (on television and radio) and in print, about the series triggering “copycat” suicides, and after the series’ release, there have been families who have attributed the show to suicides in the US and in other countries. It should be noted that PRIOR to the series even being filmed, 2014 data from The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention listed suicide as being on a 30-year high, and the Centers for Disease Control named suicide as the 2nd leading cause of death in people between 10 and 34 years of age.
REASON 5: Many viewers are “binge-watching” the series. “Binge-watching” is widely practiced among people who have any of the video streaming options (i.e. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Wistia, etc), and means, simply, that the viewer watches multiple episodes of the same show or series in one sitting. There is danger, however, in binge-watching “TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY” if all 13 episodes are watched within a short period of time (i.e. over the course of 1-3 days) due to the extreme nature of the content and the intensity with which it is presented. “Binge-watching” serves to INCREASE the impact the series has on the viewer because he or she is not allowing the necessary time to process the information presented and thus, allow the resulting impact to dissipate before moving on to the next episode.
REASON 6: The series clearly illustrates the difference between the way adults and teens today communicate. In the series, you see adults communicating with each other about specific challenges posed by their children, between the teens and within the school system. Among the teens, the series shows internal dialog, including one-sided explanation through the tapes, face-to-face discussions and text conversations. It should be obvious to most parents that adults and teens see the world and its problems differently – in case it is not obvious, the show clearly illustrates this. Individual perspective, maturity level, life experiences and emotional and physical development are all being “juggled” simultaneously and impacts each teen differently. The series, if you watch for it, demonstrates quite well struggles from both the adults’ and the teens’ perspectives – as an adult watching the series, pay attention and observe the world through your teen’s perspective.
REASON 7: Response to the series has been wide-spread! There have been countless articles in magazines, newspapers, on-line print sources and even professional journals regarding the series and the impact it has had on viewers, particularly pre-teens and teenagers. Reviews and debate about the series have played out on-line, in the news, on talk-shows, on YouTube, on entertainment shows, in professional staff meetings and around “the water cooler,” around lunch tables and in classrooms all over the world. “TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY” has made a lasting impression on adult and adolescent viewers, whether positive or negative, whether they like it or not.
REASON 8: Critics are arguing that the series “romanticizes suicide.” Mental Health Professionals – in-patient and out-patient, as well as School Guidance Counselors and Social Workers – are reporting an increase in suicidal ideation and discussion. Multiple professional articles have been published expressing concern that the series may trigger “copycat” suicides.
REASON 9: The series has gotten negative press about not issuing a serious warning about the content of certain episodes, but the fact is that Netflix has had a warning at the beginning of at least 3 of the more graphic episodes from the time the series was released. The question becomes: Who bears the responsibility to read and respond to the warning?
REASON 10: The book “TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY” came with an afterward that included a recommendation that the topics of each tape be discussed, AND provided information regarding what to do if a reader found themselves with thoughts similar to the character who committed suicide. Two websites were started in response to the book and the topic: one by the book’s publisher, Penguin Group, to provide additional resources for suicidal ideation and a forum to encourage discussion (ThirteenReasonsWhy.com); a second, also by the publisher, dedicated to sharing videos, photos and comments (13RWProject.com). The intent of the author and publisher seemed to be to raise awareness, start a CONVERSATION between youth and adults, and to provide help. Interviews with the Director and Executive Producer of the series suggest the intent of the show was to tell (and sell) a story.
REASON 11: The series does not adequately address the warning signs of depression or risk of suicide. Part of the problem with this is that the warning signs may not be the same for all people. In the series, the character who commits suicide does not appear depressed – alarmed, frustrated, fed-up and irritated, yes, but not depressed. If you have questions about warning signs, please schedule an appointment with a mental heal professional to discuss your teen, family background and environmental factors – all of these contribute to signs and are not fully addressed by a list of symptoms or the series.
REASON 12: The series does well demonstrating several societal problems facing this generation, many of which have been discussed above. One that has not already been highlighted is the failure of the school system in the series in identifying and addressing mental health issues and bullying. The character who committed suicide sought out help from her Guidance Counselor and a Teacher, and wrote a poem outlining some of her internal struggle. The Guidance Counselor focused on college readiness, rather than seeing the character’s request for counsel as a cry for help. The Teacher shared the character’s written question about suicidal ideation with the class and it turned into peers minimizing the writer’s struggle. The Teacher dropped the subject, and did not further assess or address her student’s clear problem. The poem was published in a school endorsed publication as an “anonymous” submission, and while it was discussed in the same Teacher’s class, it became more peer speculation about the author, the validity of the suspected author’s symptoms and a bashing session which was not well controlled by the Teacher. While this may or may not be descriptive of local High Schools, it raises awareness that adults do not always hear or see warning signs when they are there, and, as is clearly illustrated in the series, respond to actions more from a legal perspective than from a prevention or intervention approach.
REASON 13: The series very LOOSELY follows the book. The book is focused more on the two main characters, Clay and Hannah, than any of the peers or adults. The series develops all of the characters in MUCH more detail, which changes both the message and the story significantly. In the book, Clay listens to the tapes consecutively and throughout a 12-24 hour time frame. He follows the map included with the tapes and listens to each tape in the location discussed within the cassette. Despite sleep deprivation and “binge listening,” the impact to the character seemed different than the emotional breakdown Clay had in the series. The book does not show the display of the peer-drama included in the movie, and there is no reference to the legal proceedings the adults were focused on in the series.
In conclusion, I would respectfully submit to you the following TWO recommendations:
- READ THE BOOK – the book and the series are completely different mediums, have completely different messages and result in completely different stories.
- ARRANGE for a CONSULTATION – if you recognize, suspect or otherwise find yourself questioning your teen’s attitude or behavior, please call ABC Pediatrics (910-892-1333, ext 2277) and inquire about a consultation with one of our three licensed mental health providers. Among Michael, Autumn and myself, we have over 45 years of clinical experience in dealing with the issues portrayed in the Netlix series and want to be able to help you better understand, address, and respond to these issues BEFORE there are dire consequences in your family.
Melanie Crumpler, LCSW