Student Assistance Counselor
Barbara Christianson '87
Recently, Netflix released Thirteen Reasons Why (13RY), a series based on the book by Jay Asher originally published in 2011. The series 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 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.
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 is portrayed as resulting 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, opportunities to communicate positive and protective messages were missed. 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.
In light of the concerns 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.
Here are a few more things we suggest young viewers and parents consider:
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
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, text 741741 or call 800-273-TALK (8255)
Victor has over 25 years of experience as a psychiatrist working in college mental health. He was medical director of NYU’s Counseling Service, established a counseling center at Yeshiva University where he subsequently served as the University Dean of Students.