13 Reasons Why – Conversation & Concern

I struggled so much with this story. My roles as mother of a preteen and teen, woman, survivor of abuse, previous teen who moved often, a social worker practicing clinical counseling at a high school, and an adjunct professor of social work, were each triggered. The intersection of my feelings created conflict and a general feeling of uneasiness, following a message in my mind repeating that something has to be said here.

Thus: My first blog.

While I do not feel this Netflix series portrayed the tragedy of suicide well enough, I am not sure if anything could ever portray this topic well enough. Can anyone ever fully convey the experience of grief around such tragedy? So many of my friends, family, and professional connections have been affected by suicide. The statistics of disparity around suicide is clear within not only the adolescent population, but here, we focus specifically on my favorite group: teenagers.

I found there to be a framework of blame that I feel perpetuates the cycle of suicide in the story. However, there is little compassion and lack in education within silencing this vengeful vibe, as it is often essentially a part of the emotional reaction that is natural and indeed part of suicidal ideation. This is the struggle of assessment and issues around mental health; it is often constructed by concern but influenced by bias and the end result produces what is perceived as non-empathetic judgement. 

I was back and forth with positive and negative critiques throughout the entire story series. The big picture, for me, is the cry for we as humans to pay attention, listen, love, and continue to create an open place for speaking up safely. In the aftermath of an election year, I would argue that our society has not necessarily created a reputation of overall safety in sharing our personal insights without subjecting oneself to harsh debate or isolation.

Delivery is nearly everything to a teenager.

This message of needed conversation around suicide, bullying, and the proven connection, I feel, is dimmed by perhaps the production’s grasping to pull the audience in. It appears the efforts were possibly to create a viewpoint from a realistic adolescent brain, transitioning from concrete to abstract thinking. For audience interest and heightened appeal within the story-line, it is also possible a more trendy-feel was implicated. I’m willing to bet the sales of cassettes and cassette players has increased. Teenagers want what the new idea is, even amidst their drive for individuality, they are scanning new ways to stick out and fit in simultaneously. They are supposed to do this at this age! Therefore, I feel this natural behavior of adolescent development is being exploited and marketed, and overall they are missing the message. Furthermore, parents are seeing what perhaps is a good conversation starter in the show, but missing the big picture. Why wouldn’t parents miss it? Parents too are navigating a long-time topic of suicide, where stigma swims like circling sharks.

Underlying messages weave our subconscious narratives.

For surviving loved ones in the show, as characters are affected in the unfolding story-line, it is clear they contribute to a cycle of blame. The danger in blame is that it can ignite that which was intended to be ceased. This may be especially true as blame is not helpful in bringing someone back from death, therefore there is little lasting resolve through this route of blame. Going forward, yes, there is applicable lesson! However, human nature is to either cast or internalize blame; not necessarily to use it to change our behavior toward others positively. Changed patterns in behavior are not lasting or helpful when rooted in shame.

Personally, the last episode was extremely triggering and every part of my body yearned for a way to help this young girl, all those before her, and each of the souls struggling hereafter. It was torturous. And yet it awakened a great deal of empathy in me as well. Was not “torturous” the exact feeling that the story intends to portray; leading to her death? It is not an episode to dive into if you are not practiced in “swimming” deeply.

I was, of course, also deeply troubled by the character of the school counselor. I do fear that this representation delivered the message to society that counselors, therapists, social workers, teachers, and any helping professionals are not equipped to handle these issues. It has been my personal experience that there is a range of ability within these professions, indeed. However, I do feel that this representation here will only allow for assumption and therefore create an extremely dangerous barrier between those who need help accessing the help required to save lives! Additionally, this message is contributing to the stigmas surrounding mental health, which keep hurting people from accessing the help needed!!!

The series has led to much conversation, which I am glad for within our school district, with my own children, and amongst friends and colleagues. That being said, I am also concerned. There are teens more alert to one another, yet there are teens joking or missing the big picture, saying: “I wonder what tape number I will be on (so&so’s) list.” Just today–what I may attribute as my last straw and deciding factor in posting this–there was a student who attempted a plan exactly as Hannah, the show’s main character. Hannah was even quoted in the letters and a “trusted person”, such as the character of Tony in the show, was already in motion to deliver the messages intended by this teen. The buzz in the hallways, in my office, and around social media has a mood of adventure and curiosity, sounding more like gossip versus concern.

We want our teenagers to be safe, but this show doesn’t teach them how. 

The teenage students I am seeing in my practice here, appear to be accessing this show as a blueprint for taking their lives, and that daydream of what that would evoke in others once they were gone…or someone else was gone. Last week the word got out that a commonly bullied high school students was the target of a senior prank. The tagline the other students repeated was: “Let’s make her do what Hannah did!” Is it possible we are handing over a pre-packaged plan for suicide, and/or a framework for bullying within teenage peer groups, and calling it a television series that “starts conversation” we do not want to necessarily take the responsibility have on our own with our children?  I think it is worth questioning. Sometimes we adults forget we are dealing with adolescents within a time of age-appropriate trial and development. There are hormones racing through their brains, making connections through experiences and repetition. What are we repeating? What are we modelling? What are we exposing them to and what messages are there? These are the appropriate protective factors to attend to. When adolescents are engaging in feelings of hopelessness, and when met with an idea such as this show plays out, “rewarding” hormones rush in and send a message that it is indeed a good and useful thing to have this kind of affect on people who have hurt them. It have a blueprinted plan feels powerful and may lead to feeling useful when in a teenager’s mind.

Careful, parents, and teachers and human adults of all kinds: We have adolescents, survivors, confused, hurting, and grieving people within a range of ages and cognitive/emotional capacities all around us. Sometimes media forgets that although the warning statements indicate there will be exposure, there will be interpretations we may not be predicting, which could lead to the very actions the intent was to prevent.

Always my best, within a poetic and loving frame,

Emily from within