I recently watched a very moving and poignant 13 part Netflix series, released earlier this year called Thirteen Reasons Why, followed by a short discussion documentary Beyond the Reasons featuring the writer, producer and key actors. My daughter had recommended it but I’d put off watching it for a while as I thought it would be depressing. However I’m very glad that I decided to watch it and felt inspired to write this article. I was so interested by it that I stopped writing this part way through and downloaded the Kindle book as I was interested to see the similarities/differences.
Thirteen Reasons Why is about a 17 year old girl called Hannah, who has killed herself due to the cumulative effects of various incidents which have happened to her involving thirteen people she knows through her high school. The story switches between commentaries by Clay, the nice boy who lacked the confidence and skills to tell her that he really liked her, and Hannah herself, through a series of flashbacks. There were some differences between the series and the book, but overall the series sticks fairly closely to the original text, although the way Hannah takes her life in the series is different, but they discuss why they chose to do this in the documentary.
Hannah the main character has recorded thirteen tapes, one focusing on each person who she felt had contributed to the web of events that influenced her decision to take her own life. A set of these tapes is delivered to a friend for safe-keeping, and she sends the other set to the first person on her list. Each person who receives the tapes has a one dedicated to them but they don't know which one and she instructs them to listen to them all and then send them on to the next person she names.
In the words of Jay Asher 2007 (author): “Basically, even though Hannah admits that the decision to take her life was entirely her own, it’s also important to be aware of how we treat others. Even though someone appear to shrug off a sideways comment or to not be affected by a rumour, it’s impossible to know everything else going on in that person’s life, and how we might be adding to his/her pain. People do have an impact on the lives of others – that is undeniable. My favourite quote came from a girl who said Thirteen Reasons Why made her want to be wonderful.”
Hannah’s decision impacted on those around her too. The most extreme example of this is one of the thirteen people attempting suicide in the series because he can’t deal with his feelings about what happened to Hannah. The reasons for including this are discussed in Beyond the Reasons.
Thirteen Reasons Why has received a range of reviews both positive and negative but my personal view is that it is an excellent series for teenagers and their parents to watch, and if possible, for them to watch it together and discuss, as this could help young people to believe that they are not as alone as they might feel. It depicts some scenes of violence and rape which some people think unnecessarily graphic. However in my view this level of detail seemed necessary to show the context and impact of these assaults. Parts of it are particularly hard to watch and at times I felt upset and shed some tears, possibly because it resonated with some of my own past experiences, or those close to me - and some through pure empathy with the characters.
The discussion in Beyond the Reasons suggests that the series was shown to raise awareness of how bullying and sexual shaming, particularly through social media has devastating effects on people's lives. It also highlights how certain 'popular' kids can treat their peers, and how schools can turn a blind eye to bullying. Just googling ‘suicide and social media’ brought up a research article which states: “There is increasing evidence to show that the Internet and can influence suicide-related behaviour,” and that it “may pose a risk to vulnerable groups.” (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).
In Beyond the Reasons they talk about how young people's executive brain function is not fully developed and how they respond with the more primitive hindbrain. They go on to say that because of this young people haven't yet fully developed their capacity to process experiences or the emotional vocabulary to discuss them. This means they may be unable to put experiences into perspective, and see a way forward - they just feel devastating, like they will never end and there is no way out. Consequently even when a young person has potentially supportive parents like Clay's mum, who knows something is wrong and tries to encourage him to talk, he isn’t able to. It’s frightening to realise that young people are able to conceal their desperation from the people closest to them and appear okay.
The 13th tape is addressed to the school counsellor – Hannah’s final attempt to find an alternative solution. Tragically this doesn't work. He doesn’t allow her the space to tell him about the rape. He starts to make guesses and suggestions which just close her down. He even tells her that if she doesn't want to name the boy, nothing can be done and that as he'll be leaving next year she'll have to just move on and let it go. At this point Hannah loses hope and leaves the room – still hoping he might follow her – but he doesn't and her final hope is gone.
From a parent’s point of view, losing a child is one of the most dreadful things a parent can experience; losing that child to suicide is devastating. I have witnessed this type of bereavement as a counsellor. Although it can be possible to work with the grief and come to some kind of resolution, it is a loss that will stay with them in some way for the rest of their life.
In today’s climate where educational targets are so important there seems to be no space in the curriculum to learn about emotional intelligence, how to conduct relationships with respect, valuing and respecting peers, or for changing the ingrained sexist double standards about sex which I so expected and hoped would have changed since I was a teenager in the 70's.
My children are grown up now but if there are any parents of teenagers reading this please consider bringing up these kind of topics at your children's school so we can provide a stronger, healthier grounding for our young people - the future adults of our society - and avoid tragedies like this happening to them.