What to know about 13 Reasons Why
The Netflix Series “13 Reasons Why” has raised concerns from parents, counselors, and teachers. In response to these concerns, the streaming service now includes a warning to the series, but it has already been renewed for a second season. Parents, many of whom are just waking up to the series, have lots of questions. If I learn that child has seen or binged watched 13 Reasons, what should I do? If my child has not watched it, should we watch it together? Does social media really have the kind of influence in kid’s lives as is portrayed in the series? Are the issues addressed (shaming, sexual assault, self-harm, ideating about suicide) real issues that I need to know about if my kid is a good kid? To equip you for conversations on this series, we spoke with Sissy Goff, the Director of Child and Adolescent Counseling for DayStar Counseling Ministries.
Sissy attests to the popularity and influence of “13 Reasons Why.” She has not seen anything sweep high and middle schools like this series since the Twilight movies. She says all parents need to be aware of the show and the content:
“It would be nice not to touch it at all in some ways. But I think as parents, as adults in the lives of kids, we need to be watching it today because…every adolescent I have talked to has either said, ‘Everyone around me is talking about it or I’ve seen it.’”
“So, I think for us to have conversations, which I do think are really important for us to be having with them. For us to have educated conversations, we at least need to see some of it. Because as you watch it, you understand why it’s as compelling as it is with adolescents today… What I’m saying to kids is, ‘If you haven’t watched it, don’t. But if you have, let’s talk about it.’ Because there are some images and some issues that are raised and shown very graphically in the show that I think can be destructive for kids and are absolutely what we’re seeing in our counseling offices since the show has come out.”
Gone are the years of everyone gathering around the family television to watch the same thing at the same time. This makes it all the more challenging—and necessary—to be aware of what your kids are watching without you. Today, as shows are released by season, rather than episode online, we can sit down and watch (or binge-watch) an entire season of a show in a day or two. This means our kids and teens could be completely consumed by a series before we know what is in it. This is particularly concerning for shows like “13 Reasons Why,” which are marketed to teens but have disturbing content.
Specifically related to the content in the show, be aware of:
1. Violent, graphic images
Sissy said, “Well, there are several different things. There are two rape scenes that are pretty brutal to watch. The main premise of the show, I think from their perspective, is we need to be talking about these things. They really are happening in high schools, which is absolutely right. They are happening and we need to be talking about them…[T]here are flashes of scenes of a girl who has cut herself, but then the last scene, which I think in this case I can give a spoiler. The last scene, or the end of the show, is that she cuts her arms and bleeds out. And it is very, very graphic and painful to watch.”
2. Suicide contagion
Sissy has been a counselor for 24 years and points out the very real fact that public suicides can influence kids to think about it who might have been vulnerable already. “I remember when Kurt Cobain took his life and the amount of kids that we had come in afterwards who were contemplating it or had tried. And it’s called suicide contagion. They actually call it the Werther Effect based on an 18th-century novel. But kids try to, either contemplate or try to take their lives after a highly publicized suicide.”
“And so, we have seen in our practice, particularly, just a higher rate of kids with suicidality than in the previous months, just in the last couple weeks. And they’re not saying it’s because of the show, but they’ve all seen the show. And so, I think the exposure is it just puts ideas in their heads. It’s probably my primary concern.”
3. Suicide as revenge
One of the biggest concerns for counselors about this show is that suicide and suicidal thoughts are not portrayed as a mental health issue, but a tactic of revenge.
“[W]hen anyone takes their life, the last thing we would want someone to feel is that it’s their fault. I mean, we have more kids than ever today who have a parent take their life, a sibling, a close friend. And everyone around that person automatically defaults to, ‘Could I have done something?’ And so, as counselors, we’re trying to backpedal that consistently. ‘No, you couldn’t have done anything. It’s because that person is severely depressed. There’s a mental health issue.’”
“And that’s not how it’s presented in the show. She is presented as getting revenge. And she sends out these tapes to 13 people who she says basically are the reasons why. And so, all of these kids and one adult, are grappling with that as a result. And so, that again puts something in the heads of teenagers that we just simply don’t want to be there.”
Teens and Mental Health: What to know
As someone who works daily with teens and their parents, Sissy sees how understanding the teenage brain, and how it is different than ours, can help parents communicate better with them.
1. The teenage brain operates differently
Sissy wrote an open letter to teens about this series, where you can find some of these points further fleshed out.
She shared with us why she did a letter directly to teens. “Everything feels permanent for a teenager just because the way their brains are structured and growing. So, it’s to say, ‘You matter. The people around you love you. You can always reach out for help.’ All of those things we would be wanting to communicate to adolescents right now anyway, but especially in light of this. Because the counselor in the show is very ineffectual, uncaring. It presents mental health professionals in a light that is not good. So, I think just trying to say to kids, ‘That’s not the reality. And there are people around you who love you and want to help… This is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, which is not what their brain development is telling them right now.’”
2. The constant prescience of social media makes it harder
It has “ramped up” and intensified all those teenage emotions, she says. “You know, that age-old concept, the imaginary audience that we all felt like everybody was watching us all the time. Now they really are. And so, everything is lived on the stage and they’re, kind of, creating audience rather than community. And so, that makes reaching out even harder because there’s this level of awareness that shouldn’t be, and fearfulness. And here is something different than what many of us faced as teens:
“And so, when you and I were growing up, probably the worst things we could think of to say if we were in a really bad place was, ‘I’m gonna run away.’ And now that’s nothing for them. They’re saying, “I wanna kill myself.” when they get in a bad place.
“I was with a group of teenagers last week and one of them said, ‘If I said, to people in my class, I’m worried or I’m really stressed. No one would listen to me. They don’t listen unless you use words like depressed, I have anxiety.’ We had a teenager who said to one of our counselors here, ‘Cutting is trendy. No one will listen to you unless you’ve cut yourself.’”
“And so, the language they’re using, the trends even, in terms of the mental health field are really concerning because it’s just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And there’s not a lot of room. And so, all of these things can almost be glamorized and then miss the fact that it’s really rising on its own.”
What can we do?
1. Talk about scale
Sissy uses this practice with kids. “One of the things I’ve done in my office a lot is talking about a scale with kids of all ages. It’s a one to 10 scale. And what would be a 10 on your scale, which would be something like losing a parent or something that they can image as being the hardest thing. And so, talking then with parents about, ‘Your child and I have talked about the scale, so when they get in the car after school and say, ‘This is the worst day of my whole life.’ Then to say, ‘Well, tell me about it.’ And then we listen and then say, ‘What number is that on your scale?’ So, then that gives them automatic perspective. Because everything feels like a 10 for them.”
2. Give kids a chance to get outside their own lives
Give kids opportunities to get out and give and go on mission trips, and see places where people are struggling in different ways. She says this helps them step outside their “right now” mentality. “ I heard somebody say, ‘Children with attention issues have two time frames, now and not now.’ And I think adolescents are the same. I mean, it’s like, now and not now, whatever’s right in front of me is what I see the most. So, helping them have a bigger perspective.”
3. Grow resourcefulness and resilience
Ask questions like, “What do you think would really help in this situation? What do you think would be the best thing to do?” This actually empowers teens. Sissy says, “And we want them to feel like they can make a difference. On the show, the kids feel so powerless in the midst of it and all that’s going on around them.”
In conclusion, we want to clearly acknowledge and understand suicide as a mental health issue, an important distinction that this TV series does not make. This is particularly important for those who have a friend or family member who has taken their life.
Sissy shares, “But for somebody to take their own life means they are really sick from a mental health standpoint and the illness has taken over. And so, in the midst of that, there is nothing we can do to stop other than along the way, trying to get them the best help that we can get, but ultimately, sometimes the illness wins. And we know, big picture, it doesn’t. That light always wins, but in the meantime, here it feels like the illness wins.”
We spoke with Kay Warren, who has been working with churches to bring mental health into the light, and to remove the stigma that too often surrounds talking about it. For encouragement for friends and family grieving the death of a loved one or grappling with mental health sickness, it can feel like the darkness is winning. We cling to the eternal hope purchased for us by Christ on the cross and in His resurrection. Kay has resources for churches and groups as well.
Listen here to Kay’s interview about mental health, grieving the loss of her son, and clinging to hope in the midst of darkness.
Finally, Sissy reminds us, “Sometimes it feels like the darkness wins in the temporary. But it doesn’t in the permanent and in the eternal.”
If you or someone you know someone are struggling with mental health or suicide, call this 24/7 hotline: 1-800-273-8255.