Shaun Robinson, the head of the NZ Mental Health Foundation, suggests 13 ways you can start a conversation with young people about the issues raised by the controversial hit show.
Content warning: This post contains discussions of mental health and suicide.
It seems like everyone is talking about 13 Reasons Why. Some people find it pretty disturbing, like 17 year old Bree Brown, who yesterday wrote that the show reinforces some dangerous myths about suicide. Others think it is starting conversations about issues that get swept under the rug – like slut-shaming, bullying, sexual violence and suicide.
I can see both sides.
Yes, these conversations are important, and we should be having them. The issues raised in the series are sadly a reality for many of our young people and they can have a devastating impact on our communities.
But conversations and stories that oversimplify the causes of suicide, present suicide as a reasonable response to difficult circumstances, explicitly discuss methods of suicide and fail to explore any solutions or avenues of help aren’t safe conversations and put vulnerable people at risk of taking their own lives.
We need to have open, honest and informed conversations about these really challenging topics and be prepared to keep talking about them. We need conversations that help people to understand that suicide is preventable, that we each have the power to help those in need and that most people who feel suicidal will go on to recover and lead great lives.
13 REASONS WHY
It’s likely that the young people in your life will watch this show, or have friends who watch it. The show raises a lot of questions, but it doesn’t provide any answers. That’s where you come in. Young people are already talking about the show – make sure they have someone safe and responsible to talk with. It’s important that they don’t feel like they’ve done something wrong by watching it, or feel they can’t talk about the issues the show has raised.
Here are 13 conversations you could have with your friends, family and kids about 13 Reasons Why. It’s quite a long list. Pick the stuff that works for you and go with that.
1. How did the show make you feel? The show is confronting and is designed to hit you hard. What did it bring up for you? Are there issues raised in the show that you need to talk to someone about? Did the show make you think about suicide? That last question is really important to ask yourself and others. If it did, then please reach out and tell someone. We know that some people become suicidal when they watch shows like this. It’s not abnormal, but it does mean you need some extra support and you deserve to get it.
2. Is suicide anyone’s fault? If you’ve lost someone to suicide, you might be familiar with the guilt that can come with this loss. People who are bereaved by suicide are often tormented by thoughts of what they could have done differently, how they could have helped. They may feel that other people are blaming them and this can prevent them from sharing their grief and getting the support they need. I want you to know: you are not responsible for someone else’s actions. It’s great to think and talk about how our actions can affect others, and how offering support and comfort to someone in need can make a real difference. But blaming a group or individual for someone’s suicide is never okay. The reasons behind suicide are almost always extremely complex and can’t be distilled to a single cause.
3. How can you be a supportive friend and still look after yourself? While Hannah never blames Clay for her death, the show strongly suggests that he could have done more to help her, and he clearly blames himself, saying “I cost a girl her life because I was too afraid to love her.” We all want to be a good friend, and support the people we care about if they’re having a shit time, but we can’t take it all on ourselves. No single person can be responsible for another person’s health and happiness, it’s too much.
What could you do if you were worried about a friend? Who else would you ask to help support your friend? You don’t have to have all the answers or do it all yourself. What services could you help them access? How do you care for yourself while you’re supporting someone else? It’s easy to focus on someone else’s needs first because they seem urgent, but living with that pressure can be exhausting. You need to look after yourself first.
4. What other options did Hannah have? I know young people who watched the show and felt that Hannah’s suicide was inevitable, that she didn’t have any option but to take her own life. That’s troubling. Hannah couldn’t see any other way to cope with the things that happened to her, but it would be good for us to talk about what we each could do if we’re in a similar situation. Make a list of the people you could ask for help if you needed it.
Hannah talked to her school counsellor and didn’t get the help she needed. Sometimes you might reach out for help and not get it. That can be crushing. It’s important to have a range of people and organisations you can reach out to so that you don’t feel you have nowhere to turn. Talk about who these people might be (friends, whānau, church leaders, teachers, counsellors, coaches, etc.) and what organisations could help you (your GP, Youthline and The Lowdown are great places to start). What would you say? Do you know what kind of help you might need in that situation, or would you need some guidance? These are good questions to ask before a problem arises but it’s an especially important conversation to have if you’re struggling and don’t know where to turn.
5. Slut-shaming: is it a big problem? A thread that runs through 13 Reasons Why are the ways in which Hannah is shamed for rumoured or actual explorations of her sexuality. Slut-shaming is a huge problem for our young people (particularly young women), but it’s not one we discuss very openly. Often without being conscious of it, most of us judge or criticise what young women do with their bodies – how they dress, how they walk or talk, and when and who and when they choose to share it with. These judgements can be deeply hurtful to the women who receive them.
Let’s talk about how you might be slut-shaming yourself or your friends. What effect does it have on how you feel about yourself and others? What judgements are you making about yourself and others based on what you wear or how you behave? Are those judgements true or fair? This is a huge, thorny issue that you won’t resolve in one conversation, but it’s time to start.
6. What do good friendships looks like? Making friends and finding out where you belong is a huge part of growing up. Most teens will turn to their friends for advice, support and comfort when they’re having a tough time. Our feelings of self-worth and identity are often formed based on our friendships, so when these relationships dissolve it can be incredibly hard to cope. Talk about how you would cope if you were betrayed by a friend. Who could you talk to? What does a good friendship look and feel like? Are online friends as good as real-life friends?
7. Is it safe for LGBTI people in your community? In the show, Courtney is worried her classmates will think she is a lesbian, so she spreads a rumour about Hannah and an openly lesbian student to divert attention. Why do you think that Courtney thought being a lesbian was shameful? How would that situation play out in your school or community? Talk about whether you think LGBTI students are supported and accepted. If you are LGBTI, do you feel safe expressing your whole identity? Do you know where to get support if you need it? (RainbowYOUTH, InsideOUT, Outline, Youthline.) LGBTI young people are 3-5x more likely to be bullied at school than their non-LGBTI counterparts. That’s not good enough. What role do you play in changing this?
8. How do we know who needs help? While it can be hard to know if someone needs help, it never hurts to ask. Trust your instincts – chances are they’re right. If someone you care about doesn’t seem like themselves anymore, or you notice they stop spending time with friend and family and doing the things they love, it’s a good time to step in. What could you say to them? How do you start that conversation? Who could you trust to get advice from? What support could you get for them?
9. How do we deal with rejection? More than once in 13 Reasons Why, people react appallingly to being rejected. Rejection can be brutal, it always hurts, but it’s something we all have to deal with at one time or another. It’s never okay to try and get revenge on the people who turn us down. Talk about a time when you’ve felt rejected. How did you deal with it? What do you think are healthy ways to cope with rejection?
10. Making mistakes – what do you do? In the show, Hannah loses some money her parents wanted to go to the bank. It’s an honest mistake, one that any of us could make, but she’s feeling overwhelmed and depressed, and she’s unable to cope with a seemingly minor problem. Have we responded with kindness or anger to other people making mistakes? How can we do better in future? Have you found making mistakes difficult to bear or that you’re very hard on yourself when you mess up? Sometimes that’s a sign of depression or anxiety, so please visit your doctor or depression.org.nz and see what support is available to help you manage these unhelpful thoughts.
11. Supporting victims of sexual violence: One of the hardest scenes in the show is Hannah’s guidance counsellor telling her she won’t be believed if she reports her rape and that she needs to move on. This response is wildly inappropriate and unhelpful. While it is a sad truth that many victims of sexual violence are not believed and not supported that doesn’t mean we can’t change this. How did this scene challenge your own beliefs about sexual violence? What would good support look like? Did it bring up memories or feelings that you need support with?
12. Did Hannah deserve to die? I’m going to answer this one for you: no. For me, one of the most troubling aspects of 13 Reasons Why is the way it presents suicide as the ultimate revenge. This doesn’t hold up. Hannah deserved to live a wonderful life. She deserved to be supported to recover from the terrible things that happened to her and go on to live a meaningful life. No-one deserves to lose their life as a way of teaching others a lesson. If you feel that people have treated you badly, your death is not a fair punishment – it’s not fair to you or to them.
13. If Hannah had lived, where would she be in 10 years? If Hannah had lived, where would she be in 10 years? I know from my own experience that when you’re feeling suicidal, you think there’s no way through. But I also know recovery is possible, and my life has unfolded in a hundred amazing ways that I could never have imagined when I was at my lowest point. We should be sharing recovery stories far and wide, shining lights on those who have overcome some of life’s most difficult challenges and gone on to live fulfilling lives. Hannah had huge potential – she could have done anything with her life. You have limitless potential, too. What could Hannah have done with her life if she’d found the right support? Where would you like to be in 10 years?
I think any of these conversations will help us to understand each other a little better and be kinder to one another. There are big, thorny issues in our society that we need to address for the sake of our young people. You have the opportunity to make things better for yourself and those around you. I hope you’ll take it.