Back in 2007 Jay Asher released a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why which eventually hit the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list in July 2011. The concept of the book was amazingly simple – Hannah Baker leaves behind 13 audio tapes before committing suicide. Following her death, a classmate named Clay finds a mysterious box on his porch containing these recordings, which explain the thirteen reasons why Hannah killed herself. That same year Universal Pictures purchased the film rights to the novel and in late 2015 it was announced that Netflix and Paramount Television would be turning the book into a miniseries with Selena Gomez as the executive producer.
I found the book to be wonderfully touching and it seemed others also considered it to be great, which is why Thirteen Reasons Why won the South Carolina Young Adult Book Award in 2010 and California Book Award (for Young Adults) in 2008. Then when Netflix released the series earlier this year, it became hugely popular again among teen viewers.
To be honest, I only discovered that a series was made quite by accident, when my 13 year old daughter informed me that her fellow classmates were watching the show during lunch break at school using the free school Wi-Fi. Even before any of the warnings came out about the show – and only because I had knowledge of what the premise was about – I insisted that if she was going to watch the show, I would be watching it alongside her to monitor and provide her guidance along the way.
So over the following week my daughter and I watched 13 Reasons Why together, regularly stopping it mid-episode to discuss the notions and impact of bullying, loneliness, depression and mental health. I fast-forwarded the parts that I knew wouldn’t be appropriate for someone young to see (and because I had read the book I knew exactly what was coming). Given that I am already ruthless when it comes to using the remote-control my daughter didn’t question the fact that she was missing parts of the show (I made the executive decision to completely skip over the rape and bath scenes because the story was powerful enough without having to add any more weight to it) and she didn’t mind. She was just grateful to be watching it because of course it was compelling viewing.
During our week of binge-watching the show my daughter and I had some pretty important and serious conversations about mental health, about what you can do to help others and how to reach out when you need help yourself. Our discussions were very deep and powerful. This was a topic pretty close to home for me as I lost my 26 year old cousin last year to suicide and I didn’t want to pretend that suicide didn’t exist when it is in fact very real and the statistics on deaths by suicides are so alarming.
EVEN BEFORE THE NETFLIX SERIES CAME OUT here in Australia suicide came in as 13th highest cause of death (2016 report – surely it was just a coincidence that it hit the 13th spot?) – higher than breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer and skin cancer. At that time, suicide was the leading cause of death among all people 15-44 years of age and the second leading cause of death among those 45-54 years of age.
EVEN BEFORE THE NETFLIX SERIES CAME OUT females ending their lives had increased by 26 per cent over the last five year period and in the decade between 2004 and 2014 we lost 19,995 Australian men – aged from way too young to 85 and beyond – to suicide.
I initially felt great about these heart-to-heart discussions I was having with my daughter about the series. We had conversations about the value of life, how to live it well and how no matter how bad a situation seems a person actually always has OPTIONS (even though Hannah Baker felt like she didn’t have any). As Phil Donahue once said, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Then it came – the backlash and warnings. Schools began sending emails home encouraging parents not to allow their teens to watch the show. Many organisations were quick to condemn the show, stating it promoted or glorified the subject and Netflix was forced to strengthen the advisory warnings due to concerns from educators and mental health experts over youth at-risk behavior, including self-harm and the idea that it could trigger copycat behavior. I personally agree that these trigger warnings were 100% necessary and I am grateful that through this controversy many parents became aware of this show, even if it was after-the-fact of their children watching it.
Moving forward, I feel like it is impossible to sweep things back under the rug after it has already been revealed and paraded around for everyone to fuss over. If I read the newsletter suggestion from our school principal before we watched the show, yes I would have most likely hesitated or stopped her from viewing it but then I think about all those deep conversations my daughter and I would have missed having.
And if we didn’t have those conversations then, I wonder when or if I would have ever dared to broach the concept of suicide with her later on. At what point is it okay and best to bring up the idea of suicide and its prevention with your teen? Is it at age thirteen, fourteen, fifteen or sixteen? What happens if you have the intention of having that conversation but your good intentions arrive a little too late?
I think every parent needs to make the decision they feel most comfortable with and in my instance – it is what it is. I can’t go back and unwatch the show with her. My daughter watched an edited version of the show (skipping the most disturbing bits because I didn’t think they were necessary or appropriate for her to see) before the controversy about the show hit the news and thus far I’m not sure what long-term negative impact watching the show will have on her.
Did 13 Reasons Why teach her anything valuable? I hope it did. During our discussions my goal was to encourage her to step both inside and outside of Hannah’s box. I wanted her to understand that all our actions, however fleeting or insignificant, are like a domino effect and have the power to impact people either positively or negatively. Be kind and you will spread kindness. Be mean and you will spread harm. Some people are resilient and can shrug off a meaningless joke; others are more fragile and more prone to breaking.
We talked about how every person’s life and set of circumstances is different. Not everyone lives a blessed life, not everyone comes from a happy home. And even if you do come from a happy home that doesn’t mean you are immune to pain or challenges or heartaches. Hannah Baker was the perfect example – her parents loved her and still she struggled to cope with everything that came her way.
Nonetheless Hannah Baker did have other options and that was my constant message to my daughter. What could Hannah have done differently? Who could she have turned to for help? Some of my daughter’s suggestions included – she could have confided in her parents or other adults, aunties or cousins she trusted, she could have moved schools, she could have taken a holiday, she could have confronted those who were hurting her instead of keeping it inside, she could have stopped caring so much about what other people thought of her, she could have ignored the haters and she could have made fabulous plans for her future and just focused on that long-term goal.
Even if some of the alternative ideas may seem silly, I was grateful that my daughter got the concept that we all have options if we just keep looking for them. Because life is so precious, giving up is NOT an option.
I also reminded her that the book (and therefore the author’s original portrayal of Hannah) is quite different from the TV series. In the book Clays listens to all of the tapes in one night, there was no social media aspect to her humiliation (gossip happened the old-fashioned way via rumors), the high school students were a lot tamer and the way she dies is different too (by taking swallowing a handful of pills instead of slitting her wrists yet because we skipped that scene in the series I only alluded to a different death without giving details because – gulp – I’m still first and foremost a mother and I couldn’t bring myself to actually say the words slit her wrists). In the end, teens need to know the show was dramatized, just a story and Hannah wasn’t a real person, though that is not to say that people don’t feel pain like the fictional Hannah Baker did every day.
We also spoke about how some people suffer from depression and like other illnesses it is a very real condition that can have detrimental consequences if not properly treated. If a person has a mental health issue, that illness does not define him or her. Instead as Andrei Lankov so eloquently stated, “To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence.” Even then, you still have an option – to go and get help.
Whether you allow your teen to watch the show or not, the fact remains that most high school students will have no doubt heard about the series and therefore the seed of this concept has crossed their mind. But suicide has existed long before the show was ever created. Though it is brutally real that does not mean every child is impressionable or troubled enough to act in this way. It’s true that parents and educators are scared about young people watching the show because they think they might act out in a similar way to Hannah Baker but 13 Reasons Why also gives parents the opportunity to discuss alternative ways to cope when you are feeling down.
Just as there are victims in the world, there are also protagonists and bullies, some who will have watched the show. 13 Reasons Why explained why it is so important to respect other people’s feelings. Even if it doesn’t mean anything to you, a kind word or action could mean everything to someone else. It confirmed why bullying is never okay and how if you turn and face the other way when someone is being bullied, you might as well be the bully too. Instead of teaching kids to learn how to deal with bullies, maybe we need to teach them how not to be the bully.
The show also demonstrated in a twisted way the ramifications of why you should never let anyone’s ignorance, hate or negativity stop you from being the best person you can be. Life can be hard but you need to stay strong because things will get better. Even if it’s stormy now, it doesn’t ever rain forever. Hard times are often blessings in disguise because they strengthen you. Whether you are having a bad day or month or year, the truth is there is something positive to be learned from every terrible experience, even if it’s just that you are a survivor who doesn’t give up.
Something will grow from everything you are going through, even when it feels like your whole world is falling apart. The thing that grows will be YOU – your strength and your courage. You can let the bad things destroy you, define you, or strengthen you – it is your choice. Remember to tell your teens these things. Tell them often. At the end of the day we all have options and a choice – sometimes you just need some help finding them.
A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress exceptionally well. Unknown
Courage doesn’t always roar, sometimes it’s the quiet voice at the end of the day whispering “I will try again tomorrow.” Mary Anne Radmacher
P.S. Interesting note: the novel title is Thirteen Reasons Why while in the series, the thirteen is written in numeric form (that is, 13 Reasons Why).