And I wondered– just like that, had a deeply irresponsible treatment of mental health in the media been normalized?
My students were referencing the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” Over spring break, I watched the series in full– starting the first episode out of curiosity, and finishing the thirteenth episode in outrage.
To explain that outrage, I need to rewind a little over a year.
In November 2015, when then-senior Justice Bennett proposed that he wanted to write a feature journalism story about suicide, it was clear from the start that we needed to handle this topic with care. Justice was able to connect with an alumnus willing to share his story about nearly dying by suicide during college. Out of concern for that alumnus, as well as numerous other students, families, and friends who have struggled with mental health issues, we went into his reporting with a painstaking need for positive outcome.
What neither of us knew prior to Bennett’s work on the story was the immense amount of research on how to present suicide in the media, or the potential consequences if it is done carelessly.
Nineteen research and advocacy organizations– from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to the UCLA School of Public Health– condensed libraries worth of information on suicide as a public health issue to create a clear two-page set of media guidelines for reporting on suicide. These recommendations are based on more than 50 international studies.
We learned that the storyteller has a powerful responsibility when the subject is suicide.
Treat the subject with caution and sensitivity, and a storyteller can dispel myths, challenge stereotypes, and even encourage those at risk to seek help. Conversely, handle words and expressions carelessly, and a media producer can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals.
We printed out the guidelines. Between the two of us, we practically memorized them. His story was meant to raise awareness and promote an open dialogue on the facts, and so every sentence went through a careful screen against these rules. Because neither of us were experts, Bennett invited a Penn professor who completed research that led to the media guidelines to read and approve the story prior to publication.
“13 Reasons Why,” on the other hand, provides a staggering amount of misinformation.
A hyper-condensed summary of the series plot: Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel, the show centers around high school student Hannah Baker, portrayed by Katherine Langford, and 13 cassette recordings that she leaves behind after her death by suicide. Each of thirteen episodes relates one story about dramatic, mostly negative interactions– everything from broken friendships to sexual assault and rape– that are presented as “reasons why” she died by suicide.
Here’s a condensed summary of what the show gets wrong– although it’s tough to condense.
While research indicates that mental health issues or substance abuse are factors for 90% of people who have died by suicide, the show never references consideration of whether Hannah is suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues that have options for treatment.
While guidelines for media coverage insist that any story must be used to inform consumers about the causes of suicide, its warning signs, trends in rates and recent treatment advances, and options to get help, “13 Reasons Why” avoids all of this except for some brief warning cards and optional series extras. While research tells us that a story which “explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and and repeated/extensive coverage” can directly increase risk of additional suicides, “13 Reasons Why” does all of these things, while the show’s producers defend their decisions. While any adult trained to work with children knows our responsibility for intervention and mandated reporting if a child ever indicates he or she has been abused or is in any danger to self or others, the school counselor to whom Hannah reaches out in the show seems puzzlingly naive to any of this. Instead of supporting Hannah or offering help, he lets her walk out of his office after she describes a traumatic sexual assault.
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, told the Washington Post that the counselor’s dismissal of Hannah’s concerns sends “a horrible message.” As a teacher at Malvern– or at any school– I agree. I can tell you with certainty that no child facing crisis would walk out of any of our offices or classrooms without help.
So, back to the casual student comments I overheard as my students worked on their projects.
When I inquired, it turned out that only three of the students involved had actually watched the show– yet they had all heard about it. One student said he heard the show was “really good,” and another told me he’d “just started.”
None of them seemed to understand that the show had serious implications. All of them seemed genuinely surprised when I gently prodded them to think a little more carefully about their words.
One positive outcome of Bennett’s reporting on suicide was that Malvern Prep, led by the Counseling Department, has taken some strong and affirmative steps this year to train faculty and staff on mental health issues. A recent assembly led by experts shared intervention strategies and treatment options, and counselors have reinforced clear protocol guidelines.
If “13 Reasons Why” is to have any positive outcome, it rests in the opportunity to discuss mental health and suicide with teenagers– armed with the facts.
The web is full of resources to facilitate positive dialogue around those facts. A few of those resources follow this post. Our counselors discuss these challenging topics with students in Counseling classes, and they encourage follow-up conversations with trusted adults.
If you opt to watch the show, please go into it with the realization that viewing leads to ratings, and ratings lead to rumors of a second season.
So please make those thirteen hours more than a Netflix binge. Refuse to accept that how this show portrays suicide is an acceptable new normal. For every hour of the show, challenge yourself to read one research article, or open one conversation about how we might treat mental health issues responsibly.
Personally, I’m not sure if I trust Netflix right now to handle future programming with any greater care.
But if we work with students to challenge media stereotypes and misinformation, and to keep open minds, hearts, and doors to conversations about mental health and suicide, then we are leading them in more purposeful and thoughtful directions than what the producers of this series chose.A Light of Exposure / The Friar’s Lantern