A Therapist's Belated Response to "13 Reasons Why"
“13 Reasons Why” is a show for adults, and not because it’s inappropriate for teens. Hear me out.
I realize this post is a few months late, so I’m sure by now, you know all about “13 Reasons Why.” Even if you haven’t watched it yourself, perhaps you’ve heard all of the reactivity around this provocative Netflix series. The eruption of backlash didn’t surprise me and some of it was quite valid. I also heard from friends and therapists alike that they enjoyed the show, which also makes sense. I’m here to offer my personal and professional perspective, as a therapist who has worked closely with teens for over 10 years, and as a person who struggled with suicidal ideation myself during my adolescence.
"13 Reasons Why" is a series based on a book that I haven't read, so I can only speak to the content of the show. The story is centered around Hannah, a 16 year old girl who dies by suicide, and leaves behind thirteen recorded cassette tapes - one for each person who hurt her in some way, describing in detail how their actions impacted her. Her belief is that the accumulation of the harmful actions of these people left her no other option but to end her life. The twelve students (and one school faculty member) addressed on the tapes discover the recordings and each listen to them, all developing tremendous guilt and inner turmoil around Hannah’s death. The students’ lives revolve almost exclusively around Hannah for the duration of the show, an entire school year. The viewer focuses primarily on a young man named Clay, who eventually begins to believe that he, himself, is responsible for her death. The show ends with another attempted suicide by one of the students on the tapes, as well as an allusion to a future school shooting by another one of the students, who was also being bullied himself. The adults in the show are portrayed as clueless and/or dismissive, so it makes sense that Hannah's efforts to reach out and ask for support from any of the adults in her life were minimal at best.
I think it would be negligent if I didn’t first reiterate the more common sentiments regarding the carelessness with which this show was introduced to the public. I agree wholeheartedly that Netflix was irresponsible with the topics at hand. Without any warning, the series includes two very graphic rape scenes and a violent suicide scene. Further, it portrays suicide in a way that could send a dangerous message to young people who might be struggling. The show risks (or actually succeeds in) sensationalizing suicide as a means for revenge or achieving recognition. If a teen is struggling emotionally in any way, they may not feel comfortable approaching friends or family about what they’re going through, or maybe they have reached out and not gotten what they needed. They may feel alone, invisible, broken, or worthless. Hannah endures a sequence of traumatic experiences over the course of her school year, and she truly believes she is unwanted, fundamentally damaged, and unable to heal or live a fulfilling life beyond these events. Hannah ends her life and ensures that those who hurt her understand that they are at fault, and their worlds are turned upside down. Their accountability is more important to her than her own future. She is longing to feel cared for and to feel relevant, and she ultimately gets that. And by blaming these thirteen people entirely for her death, she absolves herself of any control over her own choices and puts her life in the hands of her peers, who ultimately do end up believing they are entirely to blame. All of this is inherently a dangerous, problematic takeaway for teens. No one can deny that.
But I don’t believe Netflix needed to change anything about the actual show in order to handle it more responsibly. What it needed to do was provide mental health resources at the beginning and end of every episode, maybe in the form of a crisis line phone number, a message conveying hope - that there are other options and that life goes on after high school, a note about kindness/empathy or understanding boundaries, or even just an encouragement to reach out to a caring adult. Anything. Anything would have been better than nothing. I continue to be baffled by this neglectful omission.
Despite all of this, the graphic and unapologetic content of "13 Reasons Why" is not actually inappropriate for teens. It is what they are aware of or experiencing every day anyway. It’s not like teenagers don’t know what rape is, haven’t witnessed people using drugs, never have had to deal with cyber bullying or cruel social dynamics, or haven’t understood that self-harm and suicidal ideation is a reality among their peers. Honestly, every teen is likely to have experienced any combination of these things themselves at some point. What is also quite realistic about the content of this series is the deep and desperate loneliness experienced by all of the characters - the secrecy, the shame, and maybe most importantly, the lack of trust in adults that is almost universal among teenagers in our culture.
What ultimately stood out the most to me about this show was the disconnect between the caring adults (parental figures and school administration) and the teen characters. This seemed unsurprisingly paralleled by the shock and disgust expressed by many real-life caring adults in response to the show itself. Culturally, we express a lot of frustration with teens, lacking trust in them, believing they are manipulative, impulsive, and selfish. And yet we expect them to trust us with their deepest, darkest secrets and are insulted or irate when they don't want to talk to us. We really can't be surprised by this. We adults do not listen to teenagers. In our culture, we don’t take them seriously, give them much credit, or show them true respect. Rather, we treat them like a problem to be solved or a nuisance to be brushed aside. Teens are pretty independent and self-aware, dealing with fresh and mature issues during a time when their brains are exploding with new neurotransmitters and their emotional systems are on overdrive. They are also at a prime time of exploration and development, which makes this stage of life very exciting and extremely relevant, albeit rocky and unpredictable. So, teens inevitably have a lot going on that the adults in their lives are likely completely oblivious to. And for whatever reason, those adults often don’t do much to change that. Maybe because they don’t want to be bothered, maybe because they are uncomfortable facing the truth, or maybe because they simply expect teens to be voluntarily forthcoming about the goings-on in their lives without making the effort to establish an effectively safe invitation for that to happen. Then, these adults see a show like this - content that doesn’t feel unfamiliar to teens at all, actually - and they are stunned and appalled. That massive disconnect is one of the largest problems of all.
“13 Reasons Why” was marketed to teens, but adults are the real necessary audience. We need to pay much closer attention, and this is one place to start. First, to understand more clearly the realities that teens are facing in our society. Second, to be inspired to talk with the teens in our lives about what is really happening for them. We need to approach them with curiosity, compassion, openness, and respect for their experience and opinions. We must let go of judgment and desire for control over their behavior, and stop assuming we know what’s best for them. When we shame and judge teens in an attempt to change something about them, we send the message that we perceive them as inherently bad or problematic. They will begin to internalize this belief about themselves which will inevitably be demonstrated in their choices somehow - as we see in this show, explicitly. We as role models have a responsibility to show teens unconditional positive regard, to make sure they know they are valued and that their future is worthwhile. We need to stay connected to the truth that they are very much still learning, and they have an entire life ahead of them during which their values and personalities will grow and change. We should support them in channelling all of this adolescent energy towards their real strength and potential, to create a foundation of hope and security in themselves, even if their behavior is sometimes difficult to deal with. How can we fully embrace their strengths and potential if we are constantly telling them who/what/how to be because we believe we know better? Deeply knowing the teens in our lives can only be accomplished by truly listening to them, learning from them, and loving them fully. We all learned how to have compassion for others by experiencing authentic compassion from those around us, especially during our younger years. So, now that task is on us.
One element of “13 Reasons Why” that I appreciated wholeheartedly was the way that it left room for flexibility and understanding for each of the students who may have done harm to Hannah. Each of these students struggles with any combination of abuse/neglect at home, addiction, high social or family pressures, struggling with their gender or sexual identity, academic stress, and a number of other challenges that any average teenager might face. Even the character that is hardest to empathize with, Bryce, is shown to be dealing with significant loneliness and has completely absent parents. Bullying is an urgent and frightening problem that needs to be acknowledged and addressed as much as possible, and this show recognizes the powerful impact that a person’s careless or cruel actions can have on another. These characters are absolutely responsible for their actions. And they are also still young. They are easily influenced by social pressures because they are still learning who they are, how to be comfortable with themselves, and what is important to them. No teenager has it easy or figured out, even if the image they are projecting makes it seem so. If we are going to take care of bullying and victims of bullying, we need to understand and embrace the bullies, too - they are also suffering.
There is not enough time or space here to write with more depth about the very real challenges that teens are up against in their day to day lives. Going through adolescence is hard enough as it is, and we adults have failed our young people in making that time in life as healthy and safe as possible. And the truth is, I don’t know exactly how to change the often traumatic nature of the middle and high school experience. But I do know that it will have to start with genuine empathy and respect for teens from caring adults - a recognition of how difficult their lives can be. As a therapist, my job in working with teens is to allow ample space for them to fully express themselves, and for them to know the experience of being deeply understood and accepted, even with all of their inevitable suffering and confusion and mistakes. While the therapy room is a natural space for this kind of relationship, it is not the only place it can happen. Parents, teachers, school administrators, coaches, aunts and uncles, older siblings, etc. - we are all capable of and responsible for creating a safe space for teens. And we are far more likely to save their lives if we choose to actually see them rather than change them.