13 Reasons Why: Should Parents Be Concerned About This Netflix Series?

The mini-series 13 Reasons Why (13RW), adapted from a young adult novel, was released on Netflix this past week. 13RW relays the fictional story of a high schooler, Hannah Baker, who has died by suicide before the story even begins. Hannah chooses to leave behind cassette recordings for the 13 people who she feels are responsible for her death.

Through these cassettes the audience learns that nearly everyone in Hannah’s life is complicit in her suicide. The reasons range from bullying, starting rumors, sharing compromising social media images, shaming, failing to stand up for her, sexual assault, and not noticing the warning signs of impending suicide.

The show’s release has led to much conversation and social media buzz about teen suicide, especially among middle and high-schoolers. On the surface, this appears positive. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-34 year-olds. Although it can be uncomfortable, having direct, genuine conversations with our kids about suicide is healthy and potentially life-saving.

The myth that these discussions cause someone to become suicidal has been debunked. We know that silence and stigma prevents those at risk from reaching out for much needed support. Suicide is a major public health issue that deserves a thoughtful national dialogue.

Unfortunately, 13RW misses the mark in critical ways to better understand and address the devastating impact of teen suicide. Despite being touted by some as a “life-saving” work, 13RW could do more harm than good by disregarding best practices in media portrayals of suicide. Many individuals who have personal experience with suicide, as well as suicide prevention advocates, have serious concerns about the way suicide is portrayed in 13RW.

Isn’t media attention on the topic of youth suicide a good thing?

Not necessarily. Mainstream media portrayals of suicide and mental health issues are often inaccurate and can reinforce stereotypes that lead to increased stigma and discrimination toward those with mental health struggles.

Research suggests that youth are more susceptible than any other age-group to a phenomenon called “suicide contagion.” Suicide contagion exists when there is an increase in suicides after being exposed to the suicidal behavior of others. Exposure to graphic, sensationalized, highly detailed, or simplified portrayals of suicide can result in copycat suicide attempts and deaths by suicide, particularly in teens and young adults.

In the last episode of the season, 13RW violates a central principle in media’s responsibility to the public regarding the prevention of suicide contagion by showing Hannah ending her life in shockingly graphic detail. This is a show marketed toward young people. The vast majority of adolescents won’t experience contagion, but what about those who are overwhelmed, feeling vulnerable, or struggle with thoughts of suicide?

How each individual will respond is hard to predict, but we know that ignoring media guidelines on suicide can contribute to more suicides. It is worth noting that Hannah’s method of suicide was not included in the book, and it is a potentially dangerous decision by writers and producers to depict it in such a drawn out, and detailed, fashion.

As a parent, it is important to consider whether your teen is ready for a series as intense as 13RW. If your teen is going to watch the series, we encourage you to discuss with them their reactions to the show. Better yet, watch it with them.

What else is concerning about this series?

The Netflix adaptation of 13RW is receiving mostly positive critical reviews. It has been heavily promoted and possesses an engaging storyline. It connects with young viewers and, for better or worse, Hannah’s suicide serves as a plot device that draws the audience in like a murder-mystery.

Just because something is entertaining does not make it accurate. Hannah’s experiences of being bullied, assaulted, and shamed are all too common and certainly intensely painful. However, the progression of her suicidal behavior is simply not plausible. It is unrealistic for someone, especially a teenager in the midst of an emotional crisis, to construct an elaborate series of tapes all the while maintaining a sarcastic, witty, and glib tone towards people she blames for her decision to end her life.

When a suicide attempt occurs it is almost always in the midst of an intense emotional crisis. The time that it took to make 13 separate narratives and weave them together in an elaborate and devious fashion would likely have defused the crisis. If we want to have an honest dialogue about suicide, it should start with something that resembles reality rather than an extreme outlier.

It should also concern parents that 13RW hooks into a common adolescent fantasy: “You’ll be sorry when I am gone!” By portraying grief-stricken friends and family who wished they had treated Hannah differently, 13RW suggests Hannah’s suicide served its intended purpose. It promotes the idea that something permanent and shocking is the only way to make others understand the depth of one’s pain and what others have done to cause it. We should instead be helping our kids recognize that suicidal thoughts are typically a sign of intense emotional pain requiring active self-care, counseling, and the support of others, rather than the means to obtaining empathy or exacting revenge.

Depicting suicide as a natural consequence of trauma or stressors is inaccurate. Popular media often suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between negative events such as bullying, sexual assault, or family conflict and suicide. This is misinformation. Suicide is complex and not a typical response to the types of adversity described in 13RW. With awareness and community support, suicide is a largely preventable form of death. Portraying suicide as the inevitable outcome of Hannah’s victimization was, at best, a missed opportunity and, at worst, dangerous to those vulnerable to suicide.

In 13RW adults such as teachers and counselors are seen as out of touch and unhelpful. Hannah seeks help only superficially and ignores efforts of friends and family to support her. These events perpetuate the dangerous notion that no one, not even loved ones, can understand or help those struggling with thoughts of suicide. We know that meaningful social connections reduce suicide risk. There are effective treatments for those dealing with depression and suicide and ways to help those at risk such as using a suicide prevention hotline or textline.

Finally, 13RW does nothing to counter the misconception that suicide is a selfish act. Hannah’s decision to expose and blackmail 13 individuals who are the “reasons” for her death makes her appear manipulative and vengeful. People who take their own lives commonly feel like a burden to others or experience intense emotional pain that overwhelms their capacity to continue with life. Making others feel guilty is the furthest thing from their mind. 13RW could do a much better job of helping viewers recognize connections between suicidal behavior and mental health issues, especially depression.

The benefits of increased attention to youth suicide do not outweigh the increased risk stemming from sensationalistic features and misconceptions about suicide perpetuated by 13RW. Perhaps some viewers will be motivated to dig deeper to understand what can be done to reduce suicide. Some good places to start are the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the American Association of Suicidology. In the meantime, parents should be aware that this series is not appropriate for young children, and there are themes and graphic scenes that may not be appropriate for all teens.

We recommend that all parents of teens speak openly and directly to them about suicide. But a sensationalized and unrealistic portrayal of suicide is not necessary to have this critical conversation.

If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or in Ohio, text “4HOPE”. If you don’t like the phone, consider using the Lifeline Crisis Chat at www.crisischat.org.

John Ackerman, PhD
John Ackerman, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research (CSPR) at Nationwide Children's Hospital. He directs community, school, and hospital efforts to educate others about the risks and warning signs of pediatric suicide. Dr. Ackerman has contributed to ongoing investigations at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's regarding risk factors for adolescent suicide. He is also interested in how social media can contribute to suicide prevention.

19 thoughts on “13 Reasons Why: Should Parents Be Concerned About This Netflix Series?

  1. My son tried to commit suicide 18 months ago. He continues to receive treatment, but this will be a long road. This show infuriated him. He was so angry when we discussed it that he cried. He felt it was extremely exploitative to use a graphic suicide scene, especially in light of the fact that the book did not. Icing on the cake for him was hearing that the cast members got semicolon tattoos. In his mind, he felt that they were part of a show that capitalized on depressed teens’ emotional pain and that they didn’t “deserve” them. I understand a lot of people have been very positive about 13 Reasons, but he couldn’t be more disgusted.

  2. Lee Harold on said:

    I had issues in the past with suicide and things of that nature and to me, this show is not triggering or harmful at all. I think people are getting the wrong message from it. It is a very forward and honest show and I think that’s why people don’t like it. It’s not sugarcoated like everything else in the world. People need to stop being so sensitive, honestly

  3. I had one daughter read the book she is old enough to know its fake. My other one saw the one on Netflix I watched it thought it was fake and bad influence for those who don’t understand it. My other daughter thought it was good but I explained it was fake. That the kids in movie are rich spoiled kids they are rich in my opinion because they are healthy not kids with a handicap that are being made fun of or kids with conditions that being made fun and it looks like they have parents. But it never shows the Parents of the other kids just . HS is tough
    a lot of kids lie to other kids. This movie is demeaning to kids with real problems it should be taken off netflix. I also heard real stories where kids have no money or food and are made fun of by other kids because there poor like its a sin to be poor. This series should be burned and the directors sue for passing false information for serious problem. Also it hurts kids going thru sexual identy.
    jm

  4. Sue Erndteman on said:

    As a school social worker, our district is struggling with the best way to inform parents about this show. We don’t want to draw attention to this show to students that maybe wouldn’t have even considered watching it and then see that there are concerns and view it out of curiosity. How are other districts informing parents?

  5. Eric on said:

    I have not personally watched this Netflix series, but this is the second piece of literature I have read about it. As a father of a teenage daughter whose mental health really spiraled this fall, after a diagnosis of depression a few years ago, I strongly oppose her watching any program like this. While I understand the general notion that not everyone is “entertained” by the same things, I cannot see much benefit being gained by having teens with fragile emotional or mental states viewing this series. My daughter has verbalized intent to harm or kill herself on multiple occasions; I simply don’t need her seeing another teen play out her suicide (graphically according to Dr. Ackerman). And I certainly agree with the concern highlighted here that the series can make it seem to a vulnerable teen that ending one’s life is a way to seek revenge and make others feel remorseful for what they did or did not do. In general, it would seem to me that this Netflix series is an irresponsible way of trying to make suicide an entertaining topic. Medication, counseling, DBT, and locking up harmful objects are my reality as a parent, and we are working too hard to allow such dark, harmful content to cloud her world.

  6. Katie on said:

    As a teacher who read about the graphic nature of both the suicide and rape scenes, watching those scenes in particular along with the knowledge that many of my middle schoolers had seen them instantly brought me to tears. My co-teachers felt nauseous after watching them. IMO none of this has any redeeming qualities for children, or even adults.

    Parents, PLEASE watch these scenes BEFORE allowing your children to watch them. Be informed, 100% informed, before you make your decision. Watching the content yourself feels viscerally repugnant, disgusting, and something we as adults have the responsibility to shield our children from.

  7. Mike Roquemore on said:

    Dr. Ackerman is severely misinformed. Suicides do actually happen in this manner and school counselors and psychologists are frequently inept. Criticizing this because it sends a negative connotation about so called professionals in a gripping and realistic manner says a lot about Dr. Ackerman’s professional experience.

  8. betty on said:

    I heard an interview on NPR regarding this show. The producers stressed how the suicide scene was filmed in a way that made it “intentionally” hard to watch. They discussed how it was not “romanticized”. The use of the cassette tapes is romanticizing the victim’s words and thoughts. I actually noticed “cassette players ” were an extremely popular Google search. That is awful. The producers failed to realize how much of young culture is trying to re-connect with past generations who had analog devices, Polaroid cameras,record players and cassette players! This is romanticizing the whole ordeal! I lost my sister to suicide two years ago and the blame, sadness, and questions will echo forever.

  9. Rose Kindred on said:

    I have watched this show; I am 15 almost 16 and I was suffering from depression; badly, I repeatedly tried to commit suicide; I watched this show when it first came out, I found it helpful; it shows you the impact that doing something like that could have on your family, friends, and even “bullies” When I seen that it was slowly breaking down the impact on the other people in your life; I stopped; sobbed and thought of it all thoroughly. I recommend watching it, especially if you are depressed; some peoples opinions say that they think that this encourage suicide; but from not only my beliefs, they are not… if anything they are trying to prevent it…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *