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Netflix 13 Reasons Why: What Viewers Should Consider

April 24, 2017


Recently, Netflix released Thirteen Reasons Why (13RY), a series based on the book by Jay Asher originally published in 2007. The series is a fictional story that is meant to be a cautionary tale. It tells the story of a high school student who experiences a series of terrible events-many of which are perpetrated by her classmates and friends. Hannah has died by suicide but before she died she made a series of tapes explaining what each person in her circle has done to hurt her. Each episode tells one part of the story focused on a painful event and interaction.

The show has been highly watched by young people and has received lots of media attention. Because the show takes up issues related to suicide and sexual assault, there have been strong (and strongly mixed) reactions from many viewers along with several professional and advocacy groups. On the one hand, the series has potentially focused attention on and created an avenue for productive discussions around the meaning of friendship, how friends might support each other, the risks of mistreatment and assault and the issue of youth suicide. On the other hand, the depiction and circumstances of the suicide have raised concerns because there are several elements in the story that are inconsistent with safe messaging guidelines around handling portrayals of suicide in media and works of fiction.

What to do?

In light of the feedback about this show, on the day of its release, JED partnered with Suicide Awareness Voices of America (SAVE) to develop Talking Points to help clinicians and mental health professionals discuss the show with parents, young people and the media. Netflix was supportive of the distribution of the Talking Points and posted them along with crisis services and a link to additional information about young adult mental health on the official 13RY resource website. Netflix also filmed Beyond The Reasons as a tool to help parents and teens frame the conversation and encourage them to speak up and seek help. The show is rated TV MA and there are trigger warning cards prior to three of the episodes.

Here’s what we suggest young viewers and parents consider:

  • Make a considered and thoughtful decision about whether or not you choose to watch the show. If you have experienced significant depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts or behaviors in the past, this show may be risky for you to watch.
  • If you choose to watch the show and are finding yourself distraught, depressed, or having thoughts of suicide or are having trouble sleeping, stop watching it and let a parent, trusted adult or counselor know. You can also text start to 741- 741 for confidential, professional help 24/7.
  • For those who choose to watch the show, consider watching it with others and taking breaks between episodes instead of binge-watching. It would be especially good to watch with parents or other trusted adults. Discuss what you are seeing and experiencing along the way.
  • This show does provide an opportunity to explore and discuss the meaning of friendship and how we make choices when we or friends are having troubles or are struggling. Viewers should consider how they might have made different choices from those made by characters in the story.
  • Whether you choose to watch this show or not, we should all work to be caring of and vigilant about our family members, friends and ourselves. If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or showing signs indicating a possible suicidal crisis get them (or yourself) to help. Support from trusted friends and family, and professional mental health care when it is needed, save lives every day.

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, text 741741 or call 800-273-TALK (8255)

Why does this matter?

It has become increasingly clear that the way suicide is described and depicted in the media can actually raise the risk of “copycat” behavior in a small portion of those seeing or hearing these depictions. Reports or shows that include or describe details of the death (such as how and where it happened) or details about the person who died (which of course would be included in a show or story) or that describe the suicide in a way that appears heroic, romantic or based on simple events or causes, can raise risk for some. Also, language that conveys that suicide is a common, typical or reasonable response to events is problematic. And finally, depictions that suggest that suicide is a way to get back at others or alternatively to get attention or be recalled lovingly are also potentially concerning. See: Action Alliance Framework for Successful Messaging

Encouragingly, there is also some information about the kinds of depictions of suicide that might actually lower risk. These would include depictions which show people who are struggling being helped and supported by friends and professionals, treatment for mental health problems being effective and stories of people overcoming suicidal challenges.

Unfortunately, several of these problems are present in 13RY. The suicide is graphically depicted, the young woman who dies is memorialized in unhelpful ways, the suicide seemingly results directly from the misdeeds perpetrated against her by others and Hannah is portrayed as a long suffering victim who, by her death, is taking vengeance on those who have wronged her. Further, there are fewer occasions in which more positive and protective messages are communicated. Friends often mistreat each other and most adults are often oblivious to the suffering and misbehavior around them. The school counselor seriously and tragically bungles Hannah’s attempt to reach out for help rather than providing needed support and follow up.

Given these concerns, we encourage young people to consider whether watching the series is the right choice for them, and we encourage parents and educators to familiarize themselves with our Talking Points and prepare to discuss the series with the young people in their lives who are watching.

We can all help to promote mental health and prevent suicide!

Learn more about emotional health and how to help a friend: jedfoundation.org/help

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