Photo by Tess Pueschel.
Why it was a hot topic in mental health communities and high schools and what has people worried about the future of the show.
“13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more. By shining a light on these difficult topics we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation. But if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you, or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult. And if you ever need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or an adult you trust, call a local helpline or go to 13ReasonsWhy.Info. Because the minute you start talking about it, it gets easier.”
This was the introduction to the recently popular Netflix Original T.V. show for adolescents, 13 Reasons Why. The potentially triggering and controversial content, which the introduction referred to, paired with the show’s popularity in high schools, inspired mental health organizations such as National Alliance on Mental Health New Hampshire (NAMI NH) to share their fear of triggering at-risk individuals and others who have seen the show. At the recommendation of NAMI NH, the Oyster River High School counseling department sent out a district wide email about the show. With season three set to come out some time in 2019, some of the fear surrounding the show’s unsafe messaging has started to resurface as the show has a history of covering controversial topics.
13 Reasons Why is a book with an adapted T.V. series about a girl, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves behind a box with 13 tapes. Each tape is dedicated to one of the 13 individuals she holds responsible for driving her to commit suicide. Her final wish was that the box be passed from each person to the next. The second season focuses on Hannah’s parents as they sue the school and the students’ interactions throughout the court case.
This show is often criticized for its simplified and potentially dangerous presentation of suicide. Elaine de Mello, the Connect Supervisor of Training and Prevention Services at NAMI NH, spoke to some of the unsafe messaging and representation the show displayed. “13 Reasons Why offers very little hope; it glamorizes and glorifies a teen who died by suicide and does not promote healthy ways to cope, get help for problems, or heal from a loss.”
In an effort to support students, the Oyster River counseling department sent out two emails to parents regarding the show. The first followed the first season and the second email preceded the second season. According to Heather Machanoff, the K-12 director of School Counseling at Oyster River, the email was an adaptation of a note from NAMI. The email detailed some of the show’s unsafe messaging and provided a list of talking points for parents.
Machanoff shared many of de Mello’s opinions about the unsafe messaging. Machanoff said that the counseling department would probably send a note to parents preceding the release of season 3, “to let people know, ‘hey, this is coming’ and here are some resources […] so parents can kind of have a guideline of is it mature material for their student.”
Machanoff said that the purpose of the email was, “to make sure parents were aware and could make informed decisions, and had some tools if they chose to watch it with a student.” The purpose was not to prevent people from watching it, but rather to spark healthy conversation and ensure the safety of students.
Machanoff explained that although the show handled sensitive topics in both seasons, it did a better job of handling the content in season 2. “It’s important to just keep that communication going, because clearly if they keep making seasons, they’re going to keep touching on topics that are very important and very big. So why wouldn’t we [continue to alert parents]?”
Liza*, a student at ORHS, was sexually assaulted and experienced some of the consequences of the show’s graphic content first hand. She stated, “I think some of the scenes where they show an assault or harassment was kind of retraumatizing, even though they do have a disclaimer in the beginning.”
Liza then explained that the show accurately portrayed the aftermath, saying, “they got that very well in that the perpetrator usually gets away with it […] but I think visually showing the actual assault was a little too much.”
Machanoff also pointed out that the graphic elements of the show were unnecessary and potentially dangerous for people who were struggling with, or knew someone struggling with, mental illness. Machanoff stated, “I think Season 2 was maybe a hair better in terms of what they did. Personally, I don’t know if that graphic nature of things is necessary to have a conversation.”
In response to the website the show provides, de Mello explained, “the show does direct viewers to resources, but it is the 13 Reasons Why website rather than the nationally recognized websites and helplines.”
De Mello continued, saying, “I don’t think that watching the program should be encouraged, but young people who do watch it should have the support and guidance of adults who can help put a realistic context to the storyline.”
Machanoff explained that the big issue that she and many others took in the show was that, “they basically demonstrated how not to deal with such a large problem, by not seeking help, by not accessing resources.” More than anything else, Machanoff was concerned about the way the show presented the issues, rather than the issues presented. “The messaging wasn’t safe. By no means was the mental health community saying don’t talk about these things. What they were saying was do it in a way that’s safe messaging, so that we can better support students, not have a potential for danger.”
Also worrying for Machanoff was the audience of the show. “The show is aimed for adolescents. You’re taking an age group that’s still figuring things out and putting that information there, possibly inflaming some already existing conditions.”
However, some students who have seen the show, including Anna Mazza (‘20), found that for them, watching the show didn’t affect them the way that Machanoff and other adults feared it would because they were able to seperate the story it told from reality. “I knew it was a show so I didn’t let it get to me,” Mazza stated.
She explained that the drama of the show kept her from connecting it too much to her life. “Suicide is something that could happen in real life, but all that drama surrounding it couldn’t really happen.”
Gabe Speidel (‘21) also emphasized the dramatic nature of the show, but recognized that it was realistic enough to impact people. “It seemed like it was a bit stretched from what could’ve actually happened, but for the most part it seemed like it had a big affect on a lot of people [who saw the show] too.” Speidel mostly discussed the positive impact of the show. “It definitely brought more awareness to the cause, and probably just got people checking in on their friends.”
On the other hand, Aidan Brooks (‘19) disliked 13 Reasons Why for its poor consideration of the mental health community. “I think there’s definitely a right way to talk about suicide and it’s definitely an issue that needs to be addressed and we need to start accepting people with mental health more generally and widespread.” Yet, because it’s a show and intended for entertainment, “it really did not illustrate mental issues in an appropriate way, and I feel like it really could’ve done a lot more for normalizing mental health and instead it was really dramatized.”
After watching the second season of the show, Mazza stated, “I feel like the first season was better T.V. show wise.” While this seems to be the general consensus among students, both Mazza and Speidel said they would most likely watch season 3.
The book is also one of the most high-profile teen books to be challenged in recent years. It made the American Library Association’s list of Top 10 Most Challenged Books for the first time in 2012, and topped the list in 2017 after the release of the T.V. show.
Amy Kramer-Perry, the retired librarian of Barrington Middle School, now works in the Oyster River High School Library. She explained that at Barrington, after a conversation with the school psychologist, they decided to leave 13 Reasons Why available, but on her desk. When a student checked the book out they would be warned of the mature topics the book covered and encouraged to return the book should it become too much. In addition, the school psychologist would be notified that the student was reading the book and advised to keep an eye on them.
Kramer-Perry’s fear had less to do with Hannah’s decision and more to do with how students might view their own interactions with their peers. “I was concerned that someone would feel upset with themselves for something they had done and take that out on themselves, one way or another.”
She understood why schools might have found it appropriate to censor the book, but she also saw that you couldn’t ignore the issues it faced or the story and hope they would disappear. “I thought it was a valuable book, but I also thought that sometimes people become very hard on themselves and I wouldn’t want anybody to hurt themselves because of having read a book.”
Kathy Pearce, the librarian at Oyster River High School stated, “it’s a really emotionally powerful book, so I think it’s important that whoever reads it, kids or adults, talk to someone about it.” Pearce recognized some of the potential dangers, and found these to be especially relevant because Oyster River lost multiple community members to suicide in recent years. “Suicide or self harm can be triggered by emotional experiences and things like [the book] can normalize it.”
Pearce stressed, “I think it’s important that kids process it with someone they trust, and that you reach out and get help if you’re feeling in any way that you might harm yourself, and if you know someone that feels that way that you reach out and get help for them.”
There are several nationally recognized websites and helplines for individuals who may be struggling. These include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 and the Crisis Text Line: 741741, each of which are 24/7 helplines. If you are struggling or know someone who is, remember that where there is help, there is hope.
*Name changed for anonymity