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Thirteen Reasons Why: 13 Deliberations

Thirteen Reasons Why is a 13 part Netflix television series based on the book of the same name by Jay Asher. It's a controversial tale about bullying, abuse and teenage suicide that is currently stimulating hundreds of thousands of passionate conversations all over the world.

Despite being created with the guidance of several clinical psychologists, others in the field have been quick to condemn it for 'glorifying suicide' and are calling for its ban. It is certainly divisive, but like anything, opinions about the show are subjective. So who is right and who is wrong?

So thought provoking has this show been, we'd like to offer up our thirteen deliberations about Thirteen Reasons Why because we simply can't stop thinking about it.

Note: Potential spoiler alerts follow!

1. What They Are Saying:

Thirteen Reasons Why suggests that blame and revenge seeking are best achieved by suicide.

Our Thoughts:

It's true that Hannah, the lead character, speaks to us posthumously through 13 audio tapes she has recorded prior to her death - each one dedicated to a person and a story about an event which contributed to her eventual decision to end her life.

In my opinion, it's important for us to follow Hannah on her journey to truly grasp her final sense of hopelessness, worn down by incident upon incident, after person after person took advantage of her or rejected her, consciously or unconsciously, without reprieve.

It seems to me that it's more a case of accountability rather than blame. There's been criticism of Clay, Hannah's best friend "punishing the others for Hannah" but I don't see that at all. What I see is Clay's sense of justice forcing him to strive to make everyone on the tapes aware of and accountable for their actions. Isn't that what living in a just society is about?

In the clinic, particularly when working with young people, there is often a focus on the failure of others to experience consequences for their actions. More than revenge, I see Hannah's messages as a reminder to us that we often don't know what is going on in other people's lives and so should therefore be more mindful of our actions.

It hasn't been lost on anyone I've spoken to, even the youngest who've watched it (13 years old), that after suiciding, a person is unable to witness the impact of their death. Most have questioned "doesn't that defeat the purpose of revenge seeking?" I think they're right.

2. What They are Saying:

This show glorifies and romanticises rape and suicide.

Our Thoughts:

There is an episode following the series on Netflix in which the cast and crew, including the author, directors, producers and consultant psychologists discuss their preparation for and motivation behind the scenes in the show.

The author, who has a personal experience with depression and suicide, talks of being shocked out of his own suicide attempt by seeing a graphic image of person who had suicided. He felt it removed any of the romantic notion that suicide is in any way peaceful or calm, and in fact, it put him off following through with that attempt, as well as stopping the planning of any future ones. The author's intention was the exact opposite of what people are accusing the show of.

In Australia, The Mindframe National Media Initiative is funded by the government and aims to influence media representation of issues related to mental illness and suicide in a positive way. Suicide in the media is a very complex issue with various opinions existing. There is no denying that some studies have found that there is an increased risk of suicidal behaviours when the media in some way exposes viewers to the method and location of the suicide, even if it is fictional. Research however also suggests that suicide risk is reduced when the portrayal of the suicide is that of "a tragic waste and an avoidable loss that focusses on the devastating effects on others." In my opinion, 13 Reasons Why does both.

Should there be age restrictions upon viewing these scenes? Of course! The show has a PG rating and the episodes we're speaking of come with warnings of their content before the beginning. Young people under the age of 16 years old are not recommended to watch this show, and everything you read recommends parents watch it with their adolescents. The young people at risk here are those who are not engaged with their parents - those who will watch it unsupervised and those who will be unable to discuss it with their parents.

There's no doubting that the suicide scene is gut-wrenching to watch. I can still hear it when I think about it. It's supposed to shock us. We along with Hannah are forced to consider practical aspects to what she does in real time, as she realises even she hadn't prepared herself for how difficult it would be. There is nothing romantic or peaceful about her death. It is simply marred by sadness and hopelessness that she couldn't take any more of the pain of her life.

The rape scenes are jarring and confronting but they are shot in a respectful way, and the acting is magnificent. They allow us to explore the murky waters of consent and alcohol abuse and consequences and decision-making and all of these things come up in the clinic more often than you'd like to believe with normal everyday kids, from normal everyday families.

There's nothing glorifying or romantic about the scenes in this show, but they are important and brave and useful no matter how difficult they are to watch. They need to make us uncomfortable perhaps in order to have these conversations. Once again I'd like to point out, the young people most at risk watching these scenes are those who have disengaged from their parents or significant adults.

3. What They Are Saying:

Thirteen Reasons Why does not adequately depict what life is like for teenagers.

Our Thoughts:

Oh yes it does.

Okay, so there's a little Hollywood in there, but the stories of teenage drinking, drugs, sex, slut-shaming, hopelessness, trauma, depression, blurred boundaries and cyber-bullying are far more familiar than any of us would care to believe.

I work with young people in Year 7 living through this stuff and all of the consequences and fall-out that accompany it. It is shocking and sad, but it is the reality for a lot of our kids.

Every young person I've spoken to, and parents of teenagers, have commented on how accurately they believe it depicts life for our high school aged children. We might not want to accept it, but there it is.

That is why it's a must for parents to watch this show with their teenage children. It will open your eyes and begin conversations that you might not even realise need to be had.

4. What They Are Saying:

Adults don't understand what it's like to be a teenager in this age of technology.

Our Thoughts:

I couldn't agree more. We don't understand it because we didn't grow up in a time where our peers had access to us 24/7. We were lucky to have a telephone attached to the wall in the kitchen where if you were lucky enough to receive a call, everyone in the family not only knew who you were talking to, but could sit and listen in on the entire conversation! If we were having a hard time at school, we had the sanctity of home to retreat to, safe and sound for fifteen hours before returning to school the next day. A haven.

Times have changed. Information is shared so quickly. Technology has changed everything. Young people don't get a break. They are 100% accessible whenever they have their phone, laptop, tablet or whatever else they have with them. It's bad enough that they are able to receive contact from anyone in the world, but worse still, is that what they share becomes permanent on the World Wide Web. They lose control of what happens to it next the minute they push send and sadly, there's not a teenage brain I know that can adequately grasp that concept and prevent themselves from 'reacting' 100% of the time.

5. What They Are Saying:

Suicide is never the answer.

Our Thoughts:

As a teenager, it's virtually impossible grasp the impermanence of now. Their brain development forces them to be egocentric and makes it difficult to focus on anything other than the immediate drama of now. Uncomfortable feelings seem as though they'll last forever and social dramas appear like they'll be all anyone ever thinks about or talks about for the rest of their lives!

The point people are making is that in this show, Hannah is still so young - seventeen - she doesn't yet know what life has to offer and that in only a few months, adulthood will offer her so many more opportunities and friendships and freedom from her High School experiences. She doesn't know it can be better and so she makes a decision to end her suffering so permanently, that she will never learn that life isn't always so difficult.

Luckily for most of us, it is true. Life is made of ups and downs. We have periods of feeling okay, periods of feeling down and periods of feeling great with everything in between.

Sadly however, for some people, suicide is the answer. There are people who have known more pain that most of us could ever imagine. And they have tried everything they could to feel better. They have tried and tried and tried but nothing has worked. And they are tired. So very tired. And they simply can't un-do the trauma that might have been relentless and lasted their lifetime. So they make a decision - a very difficult and terrifying decision - to end their life. Maybe for those people, suicide is the answer.

On ABC iView, an episode of You Can't Ask That features survivors of suicide attempts. It's incredibly moving, and funny and poignant. Most of the people say they are so glad they didn't succeed, but one man doesn't. Watch it and you'll see what I mean.

6. What They Are Saying:

Watching this show will cause people to suicide.

Our Thoughts:

Headspace have released some quite sensible information related to contagion suicides. Follow these links -

https://www.headspace.org.au/assets/Uploads/Corporate/Grief-How-young-people-might-respond-to-a-suicide-web.pdf

https://www.headspace.org.au/assets/School-Support/Suicide-contagion-web.pdf

https://www.headspace.org.au/news/dangerous-content-in-13-reasons-why/

There's a lot of conflicting information out there regarding this. Why not have a read and consider the comments on how commonly it does or doesn't occur, as well as how significant factors such as geographical proximity, social proximity and psychological proximity to the person who suicided are as contributors to the likelihood someone would decided to suicide as a result of watching this television series.

There is no doubt that suicide clusters and the contagion effect exist and are very real. There are many examples of those too close to home.

I think we need to consider that it's likely that someone's decision to suicide is likely to be based on several factors, not just one, and almost certainly not on one television show alone. In fact, the research supports the idea that there is no one single reason or cause for suicide and that each individual's situation is unique. Common risk factors incude:

  • being male
  • having health problems
  • stressful life events
  • being young, gay, lesbian or transgender
  • having a mental illness
  • having made previous suicide attempts
  • having family issues
  • being at a socioeconomic disadvantage
  • unemployment
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
  • school disengagement
  • incarceration
  • social and geographical isolation
  • having access to methods of suicide via media or peers
  • identifying with a person who took their own life

The producers of the show say that they wanted the suicide scene to be graphic, not so people would learn how to commit suicide, but so they would realise how horrific and physically and emotionally painful it is and that would steer them away from acting on their own suicidal thoughts. It's difficult to know how an individual will interpret that scene, but we can't ignore the research that showing the method can increase suicide risk.

It's only fair that we balance this section by also listing the protective factors against suicide. Again, there is no single magic factor. Instead, it's likely that several are needed to be effective.

  • Being connected to family, school or community
  • having at least one significant person to relate to
  • having effective coping and resilience
  • a spiritual faith or belief that suicide is wrong
  • economic security
  • good physical and mental health
  • early detection and treatment of mental health problems
  • restricted access to means

7. What They Are Saying:

It doesn't mention mental health.

Our Thoughts:

We need to be careful about the assumption that people who suicide also have a mental illness. While it is true that a high percentage do, it is not a foregone conclusion that the mental illness contributes to the suicide. In fact, a low percentage of suicidal callers (approximately 20%) to Lifeline are actually calling regarding their mental illness. Most suicidal callers are calling in a crisis whether it be work related, home or relationship related or financial, their suicidality has more to do with their current situation than anything else.

Thirteen Reasons Why doesn't label Hannah with a mental illness and I like that it doesn't because the journey we take with Hannah allows us to feel her hopelessness as it develops over time as she experiences blow after blow after blow. She gets knocked down and gets back up again so many times, that we can understand and feel that hopelessness as her resilience fades and her depression creeps in.

We could certainly suggest some differential diagnoses, not just for Hannah but for the other characters as well, but what the show does, is very accurately depicts the symptoms of some psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder or adjustment disorder, reactive depression, complicated grief, narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder to name but a few.

8. What They Are Saying:

The main character has power after her death.

Our Thoughts:

She is dead. She doesn't 'win'.

9. What They Are Saying:

Thirteen Reasons Why is a good reminder to be kind to one another.

Our Thoughts:

I totally agree, along with every single person we've spoken to about this show. It's one of the major take home messages - we all should be a little kinder to one another because we never know what's happening in another person's life.

10. What They Are Saying:

It's a great conversation starter.

Our Thoughts:

Oh yeah! In my opinion, it's not advisable for teenagers under sixteen to watch this show, but if your teenager is going to watch it, watch it first and then watch it with them. It will begin conversations that are so vital to have with your kids and you will be so grateful you did it.

11. What They Are Saying:

Young people will think that suicide is the only answer and that there is nowhere to turn to for help.

Our Thoughts:

I certainly hope this isn't the case.

The reactions of the survivors in the show certainly seem to blatantly highlight how differently things could have been for Hannah if only they'd known what was happening for her. She often didn't have the words which is sadly the case for many teenagers.

However,in my opinion, the show highlighted the many direct and indirect ways to ask for help which were unfortunately in Hannah's case missed or misinterpreted.

12. What They Are Saying:

It doesn't highlight the aftermath.

Our Thoughts:

Did the people who suggest that even watch the show? Two words - Kate Walsh.

Kate plays Hannah's broken and desperate mother with such conviction. In my opinion, the entire storyline is about the aftermath of Hannah's death.

13. What They Are Saying:

It sends the wrong message about counsellors.

Our Thoughts:

This was the most worrying and disappointing aspect of the show for me.

In the final episode, we learn that Hannah attended an appointment she'd made with the school counsellor who was particularly stressed and distracted that day by ringing phones and a lack of sleep.

Before watching the episode, a colleague and I discussed our worries about whether or not we'd have noticed the signs that Hannah was at risk of harm.

After watching the episode there was no doubt in my mind that we would have picked up on every one of the many, many signals that Hannah was suicidal and we never would have let her leave the room. Nor would we have told her she needed to 'get over' her rape. Nor would we have played with our mobile phones. Nor would we have allowed her to make such an error in interpreting our message. We wouldn't have allowed her to leave the room before we sought adequate medical attention to ensure her safety.

My major concern, particularly for young people who've never seen a school counsellor or psychologist before is that they would assume that the counsellor on the show represents all of us, and that they would decide never to engage with someone like us.

Finally, I'd like to add some points for Myth Busting Suicide:

  • Thoughts about suicide are not uncommon. Most people don't act on them.
  • More often than not, there are warning signs.
  • Any evidence someone is contemplating suicide should be treated seriously.
  • Talking about suicide in a respectful and caring manner will not increase the chances of someone suiciding.
  • People contemplating suicide are not selfish or weak.
As I wrote in the beginning, this is a controversial show and I realise some of my opinions won't be popular, however, I hope they are thought provoking and I welcome any discussion on this topic if nothing else, it is increasing the conversation around suicide and that is a vital part of reducing stigma and increasing awareness. Thank you for reading. Be kind to one another. x

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If you find this content disturbing or never feel at risk of harm and need to seek help, please call:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
Men's Helpline 1300 78 99 78

This article was amended from its original form on June 25th, 2017.

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