13 Reasons to Talk About “13 Reasons Why”

A controversial TV show makes a compelling case for engaging with the challenges teens face

May 12, 2017
An illustrated graphic of two hands (one blue, one white) reaching out for one another

Based on the best-selling novel by Jay Asher, the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why begins with the end of a young woman’s life. Hannah Baker, a new student at Liberty High School, has killed herself, and the series chronicles what led up to it. The show — just picked up for a second season — has become controversial for what critics say is a glamorization of suicide, and many school districts have sent warning letters to parents about its difficult content.

We asked Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty members Holly Lem and Josephine Kim to share their perspectives on the complex issues (mental health, sexual assault, intense relationships with friends) the show raises. One consensus: The show is resonating, and adults shouldn't hide. Here are 13 reasons for adults — in schools and at home — to use this opportunity to help young people navigate the challenges they face.

1. The show is hugely popular, resonating with many young people.

Holly Lem: The unparalleled popularity of this series has created a firestorm of interest from tweens, teens, parents, educators and mental health professionals. The Twitter activity alone — more than 11 million tweets in less than a month of its release —suggests that this show is resonating with young people and our society in a way that demands our attention. My concern is that with all of this understandable collective anxiety about the depiction of suicide, we may not be listening enough to our young people about why they are hooked on this series.

My sense is that this show might be speaking to young people because they see themselves in it. While suicide is featured prominently, the story is also really about connection and disconnection — young people wanting to be seen and known and how hard that might be in this contemporary day and time.

2. Parents may be unaware.

Josephine Kim: The show portrays parents who care immensely about their children and yet are in the dark about their frustrations, insecurities, fears, and everyday life battles. It might be controversial for me to say, but I want to implore all educators, counselors, and parents to watch this show, because the biggest takeaway for us is that things may not always be as they appear when it comes to our students' and children's private lives. We may never know what it takes for each student to get themselves through the doors of the school in the morning. Sometimes, just showing up can be a huge accomplishment, as it was in Hannah’s case, and this series serves as a rude awakening that jolts us to pay more consistent, intentional attention.

My sense is that this show might be speaking to young people because they see themselves in it. While suicide is featured prominently, the story is also really about connection and disconnection — young people wanting to be seen and known and how hard that might be in this day and time.

We often talk about how much parents worry about their children, but we rarely discuss how much mental capacity parents occupy in children. When parents appear overly stressed (as in Hannah’s case), children fear that they will burden their parents more with their own struggles and will choose to not disclose their problems as a way of protecting and caring for their parents. In many ways, it is more effective for parents to be vulnerable and transparent with their children about their own life’s struggles.

HL: Young people might be careful to avoid talking about the content of the show around their parents, as they may be afraid of having to engage in conversations that make either or both uncomfortable. At the same time, considering the amount of media coverage this show is receiving, parents may have a sense of what is depicted in the show, but not have a pre-established, shared language with their child with which to explore some of these difficult issues.

3. Teachers spend more time with students.

JK: The reality is that once children reach school-going age, students spend more of their waking hours with their teachers and peers in schools than they do with their parents at home. This series highlights the crucial responsibility of teachers and school counselors to conceptualize students as whole individuals. Between standardized testing and meeting MCAS requirements, there is a tendency for schools to develop tunnel vision, solely focused on performance and achievement, while social and emotional wellbeing can get placed on the sidelines.

There are significant implications on teacher education. We need to prepare educators for how to build a classroom environment of safety and trust, how to augment the sense of belonging for each student, how to foster social responsibility in students, and how to hold students accountable in an educable way.   

4. Schools and parents have to work together.

JK: Just as schools expect parents to share their suggestions and recommendations concerning their children, communication has to be bi-directional. Schools need to invest time, energy, and money into establishing safe spaces and creating a positive climate that is welcoming to all. There should be intentional and thoughtful on-boarding programs for newly transferred students like Hannah (minus the intrusive and assumptive manner the administrator took with Hannah and Jessica). And parents need to become more proactive in their children’s lives and not believe that children will be fine by default. Schools and parents absolutely cannot defer to each other. 

We need to prepare educators for how to build a classroom environment of safety and trust, how to augment the sense of belonging for each student, how to foster social responsibility in students, and how to hold students accountable in an educable way.

5. Schools are uniquely positioned to talk with parents about concerns the show raises.

HL: Schools are uniquely positioned to reach out to parents and alert them to their concerns about the show. Schools and the stakeholders who populate them (teachers, counselors, administrators), due to the sheer volume of kids they see and the concentration of time spent together, have a good sense of what’s animating the student population; what’s being talked about and whom; what music is being listened to, and what’s being watched. I don’t think schools should approach this pedantically with parents, but rather collaboratively, reinforcing a shared investment in the wellbeing of young people. School counselors, with training in mental health, can be invaluable in providing that essential bridge between a student’s school world and home life.

JK: Schools — whose educators and counselors are familiar with child and adolescent development in a way that not all parents are — have an obligation to provide guidance and make suggestions on what parents and guardians might want to consider discussing with their children.

6. We have a teachable moment here.

HL: While I feel like the collective concern [over 13 Reasons Why] is completely justified, my worry is that we might miss out on a teachable moment. When I say that, I mean that we as educators can learn from our students as much as our students can learn from us. As adults, we tend to have a trigger-quick reaction when worried; in order to be most helpful and effective, we need to understand the emotional space the adolescents are occupying and start there.

JK: Despite our opinions about shows like this (or drugs or violence or bullying, for that matter), they’re out there, and our children are exposed to them, if not consuming them. Rather than expending energy and time debating what’s horrific about this series, we should take full advantage of its popularity and the attention it is receiving and utilize it as a tool to open doors for difficult conversations.

7. We have an opportunity to emphasize relationships and relationship building.

HL: Schools can really make a difference in young peoples’ lives in the form of relationship building. One of the overarching premises of “13 Reasons Why” is that relationships can cause someone to commit suicide, when in actuality the reasons are quite complex. And yet, attuned and responsive relationships can be one of the most powerful tools in helping with the prevention of suicide. Schools should take the compelling interest that students have expressed in this show and use it to capitalize on forming, extending, and deepening their relationships with their students in ways that students feel seen and understood on their terms, not just ours. This show, in all of its troublesome ways, is really a wake-up call for all of us to take the power of relationships very seriously.

8. We need to address the dangers of romanticizing suicide.

This show, in all of its troublesome ways, is really a wake-up call for all of us to take the power of relationships very seriously.

HL: Much has been written by mental health professionals alerting schools, parents, and other media outlets about the dangers of the show’s portrayal of suicide as a form of revenge, as a “romanticized” choice, as one of the only options for vulnerable youth. This has caused understandable collective concern. As a clinical psychologist, as well as a parent in a school district that tragically lost three students to suicide this year, I feel this concern intellectually and viscerally. I think one way to demystify this romanticization is to have frank conversations with young people about the prominent role that mental illness actually plays in completed suicides. 13 Reasons depicts an almost-empowered Hannah Baker with a strong voice and sardonic humor sharing her narrative about why she chose to take her life. This is a grossly inaccurate picture of the desperation and despair that grabs hold of an individual, that may compel them to commit suicide. It is not an act of empowerment, but more often than not, one of extreme resignation and hopelessness.    

JK: To die by suicide was the way Hannah chose to end her hopelessness, but to focus only on her act of suicide, without a contextualized understanding of the interplay of power and inequity that resulted in Hannah’s perceptions and decision-making, is remiss, irresponsible, and neglectful at best.

9. And we need to address the dramatization of very complex issues.

JK: Difficult conversations are always challenging, but they are nearly impossible when there is no sustaining rapport and trust that can cushion the pain of such conversations — whether between children and parents, teachers and students, teachers and parents, and schools and families.

HL: This series depicts a simplified, dramatized version of a very complex issue. While the series creators have made a short documentary called Beyond the Reasons that discusses some of these issues, it is unknown if students are aware of the complexities or choosing to learn more.

10. Prevention is key, and we need to prioritize it . . .

HL: I go back to the power of relationships. I feel as though there is so much pressure on kids today. Social media is like a specter haunting most adolescent relationships. Connecting is hard when you have as many virtual friends and enemies as real ones. There is a frantic pace to modern life, which makes it challenging to take a breathe and find out how your child is doing — and not just being satisfied with the omnipresent response, “fine.” Schools also need to have systems in place where relationships are explicitly cultivated and valued.

11.  . . . By implementing evidence-based programs

HL: Programs such as Signs of Suicide or Break Free from Depression are essential curriculum for all middle school and high school students. Ideally, these programs would be implemented proactively, not reactively after an incident. Prevention cannot be a “one-and-done” approach. While I believe both of these programs are very helpful, they need to happen in a receptive environment where the messages will stick. This might require a gradual paradigm shift in many schools where the underlying expectation is that young people should leave their troubles at the door.

School systems can play a significant role in destigmatizing mental illness. I believe that young people want to talk about their distress but are highly attuned to the implicit or explicit messages that a system gives regarding the safety of that kind of sharing.

JK: Group counseling is a powerful treatment modality that has the potential to change attitudes and behaviors of youth, yet it is grossly underutilized in schools, and not all counselors are trained adequately to do it. Group counseling has been shown to instill hope, spark altruism, and make youths feel validated and heard. In sharing concealed thoughts and feelings with peers in a safe space, students realize the universality of their issues and recognize, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone.

12. . . . By encouraging youth to seek help for mental health issues

JK: When it comes to mental health, it’s important to realize that everyone struggles at various times in their lives; therefore, there is no shame in struggling. Seeking help at the first signs of distress prevents magnification, because the longer we conceal and repress our wounds, the bigger the impact on our functioning.

We need to encourage our students to not suffer alone in isolation. As parents, we need to give permission to our children to talk to someone they trust (even if it’s not you) and to seek help until they find it. Lastly, we need to help our children learn how to ask for what they need. 

HL: School systems can play a significant role in destigmatizing mental illness. I believe that young people want to talk about their distress but are highly attuned to the implicit or explicit messages that a system gives regarding the safety of that kind of sharing. We also need to work together as a society to recognize the power of naming as potentially transformative and healing. As adults try to “tactfully” approach issues with adolescents, we end up reinforcing the stigma by allowing their profoundly sad, uncomfortable feelings to go underground, creating shame rather than shared understanding.   

13. . . . And by reshaping gender stereotypes that fuel a culture of sexual assault.

JK: When it comes to sexual assault, we could say things like, “Know the dangers of substance-induced sexual violence; learn self-defense; practice saying ‘No’ convincingly through role-plays; choose to go on group dates,” and more. But true prevention will happen when we can alter society’s definition of masculinity and femininity. We need to stop placing boys into a box that keeps them “tough, insensitive, and violent” to prove their manhood. We also need to keep girls out of the box that reduces their bodies into objects. There is a larger societal issue here, and at the core of it is gender inequality.

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About the Author

Casey Bayer
Casey Bayer is the senior media relations officer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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