Netflix’s controversial suicide drama has sparked debate following its arrival on the streaming service in March.
The debate surrounding 13 Reasons Why, and whether it deals with the subject of teen suicide tactfully, is continuing as schools in the USA are now issuing letters to parents warning them about the drama.
The adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, follows a group of 12 high-school pupils as they piece together a story described on a series of tapes left for them from their classmate, Hannah Baker, who has committed suicide.
On the tapes, she recalls instances of sexual harassment, slut-shaming, rumours and rape – which, she says, ultimately, caused her to take her life.
The series has come under fire for depicting the suicide in a graphic scene in the final episode.
The debacle over this series, alongside the Blue Whale Game hoax, is concerning as it could be seen as sensationalising suicide.
Does the series glamorise suicide?
Sue Brewster, school counsellor and wellbeing team leader at Ribston Hall High School, said the Netflix series was “poetic”.
Ms Brewster said: “Hannah narrates her own demise and this, in my opinion, buys into the adolescent idea that we can somehow survive our own suicide and see the impact it has on those who have wronged us.
“Hannah is still ‘alive’ and this creates a cosiness about the issue which is disturbing. In my experience working with teenage girls, suicide is sadly not a taboo subject and disaffected groups will often openly speak about their ideation in a very casual and glamorised way – as if they can come back from it. Often it is hope and happiness that is the taboo subject among depressed and marginalised adolescents.”
A concern about the series is that there are no “competent adults portrayed” – we are shown a kind teacher and a guidance counsellor, whose allegiance is to the school and not to the individual.
Yet we are not shown an alternative, not given a viewpoint consisting of hope. A lack of hope is the overarching theme throughout all the interwoven storylines – and this can be a very dangerous portrayal for a young person.
We’re all talking about suicide
Whilst interviewing for this article, a uniformed theme became apparent – the series had created an environment in which parents, teachers and young people could talk about suicide.
Noel Conreen, school business manager at Chaigeley School said: “The focus on the Netflix series has allowed young people a forum within which to investigate real and ongoing issues around suicide which coincide with the recent and positive increase in awareness around mental health issues.
“Although it is an area we have to be very careful in when tackling the promotion of discussion around this – we have to make sure this is seen as positive.
“Rather than allow the media or young people to glamorise this, it is down to teachers, parents, carers and all professionals who work with young people, to embrace this opportunity to engage in healthy and planned discussion about how we support wider mental health issues.”
Many agreed that the shock value of the suicide scene is needed in order to wake people up.
Ms Brewster said: “What this programme does do is it gives us the opportunity to open up dialogue about suicide and the mental health of adolescents in general.”
BUT, the programme does not give any hint of what to do to prevent someone from taking their own life. The defining factor of adolescence is impulsivity and Hannah’s suicide is anything but. The thought, time and effort that went into making the tapes was detailed and long-winded and could have given Hannah time for reflection and contemplation about her life and inner self.
Our Self-harm and Suicidal Behaviour guidance document offers guidance on the nature and causes of self-harm and suicidal behaviour, suggests some potential strategies and outlines advice on managing injuries associated with self-harm.
Should young adults be watching this?
In the UK, there are strict guidelines around how suicide is depicted on screen. Ofcom states that “methods of suicide and self-harm must not be included in programmes except where they are editorially justified and are also justified by the context”.
The series shows Hannah’s suicide in detail, which has led to fears that such scenes may inspire “copycat” actions among young viewers. Furthermore, media guidelines from the Samaritans explain that “over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide.”
Even with its title, 13 Reasons Why is reducing the complexity of suicide to a series of unfortunate, but relatively normal, events in a teenager’s life.
Ms Brewster argues that the series has an “incredibly narrow narrative”, as it suggests that bullying leads to suicide.
Whilst it can be a strong contributing factor, we are never shown anything of Hannah’s background. We aren’t given any information about her life or why she is so emotionally depleted.
Ms Brewster argues that “depression and suicide ideation are the ultimate expression of poor attachment and depleted emotional resilience. Many people are bullied, sexually assaulted and made to feel worthless, and yet do not resort to suicide. These people could be described as having a thicker emotional skin – more resilience.”
Georgina Greenhalgh, safeguarding governor and parent, spoke to us about her 14-year-old daughter watching the series.
Ms Greenhalgh said: “I was initially concerned that my daughter had watched this series, as it is an 18 and she is only 14-years-old; however, after I had watched the series myself I was disappointed that the series was an 18 – in my eyes this should be lowered, as I think young people should be encouraged to watch it.
“Yes – the rape scene and the suicide scene is graphic – probably why they have made the series an 18, but I think sometimes, young people need to be shocked in order to see and pay attention.”
The way the series is filmed gives a ‘360 approach’ to a suicide – you follow the lives of different individuals and how they each contributed to the demise of Hannah. I’m sure most young people watching this series could relate to a character in some way. Maybe they have said some hurtful things to someone or joined in on some ‘harmful’ banter against another child – unbeknownst to them that their actions could have this effect.
One positive of this series is that the shock value, alongside this 360 approach, could be used by schools to demonstrate the harmful effects of bullying.
What can schools do?
In the series, Hannah contributes the lack of support from her school towards her eventual demise, highlighting the importance of pastoral care in education.
Mr Conreen said schools should:
- Create a culture of trust and openness.
- Train staff in mental health awareness – with a focus on self-harm and suicide.
- Promote a no judgement approach to both pupils and staff.
“Chaigeley School is a non-maintained residential special school for pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs. They deliver training both on and off site to many different education and care providers throughout the country, and can offer support to any organisation wanting to increase knowledge and understanding of these areas and others throughout their teams.” Mr Conreen added.
Ms Brewster believes that the Netflix drama fails to show the audience the real impact of living day-by-day with a mental illness: “Many adolescents cope with deep depression or crippling anxiety – in order to prevent suicide, we need to bring the talk of mental health into the classrooms and corridors of our schools.
“De-stigmatise it by having conversations, teaching classes and displaying posters that say it’s ok to not be ok! And then offer an intervention.”
A recent article in TES highlighted the pressure on schools to manage peer-on-peer sexual abuse, yet it is a topic that is rarely discussed. MPs and various charities have voiced concerns over a school’s ability to respond to peer-on-peer sexual abuse, as there is a gap within the DfE’s safeguarding guidance.
Our Peer-on-Peer Sexual Abuse guidance document gives a brief outline of the issue of peer-on-peer sexual abuse, alongside tips and advice for dealing with it.