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Thirteen Reasons Why: A Modern Documentary on Teen Suicide

Image credit: Netflix

For parents of middle and high schoolers, the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why is a hot topic of conversation. At least, it should be. Teen suicide is controversial at best; it is tragic, heartbreaking, and painful. Because of its harshness, it is difficult to talk about. And that is precisely why parents of teens should watch it.

I didn’t pay attention to the series until we received an email from the school district superintendent. Kids are talking about it at school to the point of distraction. When I asked our eighth grader about it, he said friends of his had already watched the whole thing. I decided to check it out for myself.

What It’s About

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The series is based off a 2007 book by Jay Asher. For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, I won’t give away key plot points. To give you an overview, the series is narrated by a character, Hannah Baker, who is a 17-year-old high school junior. Hannah killed herself. The narration is courtesy of 13 tapes she recorded shortly before her death that detail each reason why she killed herself. Each tape is dedicated to an individual at her school who she felt played a role in her downward spiral. The show talks candidly about bullying, sexual harassment, stalking, assault, rape, abuse, underage drinking, drug use, and, of course, suicide. It’s a difficult series to watch because it depicts an alternate view of high school: the lonely one.

Critics of the series say that it romanticizes and dramatizes suicide, and teens who watch the show without parents involved are at an increased risk of self-harm. The series could also be seen as a “how-to” for suicide, some say.

A Parent’s Perspective

As a parent, it troubled me that none of the teens depicted in the series felt comfortable talking to their parents about their problems. The parents are shown as passively involved in their children’s lives, only asking the required questions like “how was your day” or “is your homework done,” if the parents were present at all. When they’re around, the parents usually don’t ask to listen, and they don’t probe for more information. The parents seem to ignore the kids’ mood swings and chock it up to teen angst, when in reality there were big problems behind the scenes. I watched the series asking myself, is that how we appear to our kids? As passive watchers, not active participants? And why didn’t any one of these teens seek help?

What I loved about Thirteen Reasons Why was its honesty. And I admired Hannah’s seemingly resilient spirit. Despite every setback, every heartbreak, she put herself out there to trust again. To try, again. To give people another shot. As she narrates, her story beautifully balances hope and despair, until its tragic end by her own hands. It’s a story that resonates with our youth and has the opportunity to create a dialogue about suicide awareness and prevention.

Sparking An Important Conversation

Teen suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens aged 15 to 19 years old, so the series is meant to spark tough conversations.

Image credit: Elite Daily

It’s estimated that 90 percent of suicide victims suffer from some sort of mental illness or chemical dependency, and the triggering event that leads to suicide can range from a bad grade on a test to sexual or physical abuse. The individual’s mental state plays such an important role, and that can be the hardest warning sign to spot.

And yet, we never talk about it. What are the signs? In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah had become increasingly distant, anti-social, and lonely. Her grades were slipping. She didn’t have many friends (in her view, she had no friends by the end of the series), had a reputation for being dramatic, and openly admits to letting others’ opinions influence her own mindset. She was not taking drugs or drinking excessively. She had a fairly normal family life. Her outbursts at home and school were well within the normal range for teen hormones. No one noticed her subtle cues, or that she was pulling herself away from social situations. How well do we pay attention to those minute details in our own lives? Or in our children’s?

Before you watch Thirteen Reasons Why, know that the content is very much “adult only.” The language is pretty bad, and there are scenes depicting sex, drugs, underage drinking, sexual assault, and nudity. But the thing is, it’s showing high school; or at least a hyper-sexualized, dramatized version of it. Watch this first on your own or with your spouse. Unless your child is much older, I wouldn’t recommend letting your son or daughter watch the series (if they haven’t already watched it on their own, that is).

Even without them watching it, I believe you can still have a meaningful conversation with your kids about the series. I’d encourage you to watch at least one episode or part of one with your kids, and talk about it: how does this make you feel? Is this similar or different to what you see or experience at school? How do you think this situation could have been handled better? How would you react if placed in a similar situation? How can you watch out for your fellow classmates?

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Then, just listen. Don’t be surprised if you feel uncomfortable. Remember, this is what they’re living. Even if none of what you talk about surprises you, my hope is you’ll make a meaningful connection with your son or daughter about a taboo topic.

Thirteen Reasons Why should be on every parent’s watch list, but don’t stop at the TV. Involve your kids in a conversation about bullying and teen suicide. Maybe with a little more awareness, we can lower the statistics together.

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2 Responses to Thirteen Reasons Why: A Modern Documentary on Teen Suicide

  1. Krystal L. Smith June 9, 2017 at 11:02 pm #

    Nice post! I recently finished the series, and although many parts were difficult pills to swallow, it was quite interesting, and overall, I liked it. Conversations with our children are a must after watching this series.

    • Julia Germeyer June 11, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

      Krystal – thank you! I think it reminds us that not everyone deals with situations the same way, like bullying and harassment, and phrases like “it’s just high school, it’s not that bad” or “we all go through it, just deal with it” can actually be dismissive comments. The series definitely has its flaws, but for the purpose of starting a conversation, it did a pretty good job.