Essential Questions for 13 Reasons Why

If you work with teenagers (or parent one) you’ve probably heard of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, a series based on Jay Asher’s book of the same title. It’s that show everyone seems to be talking about. The gist, if you haven’t seen the series or read the book, is this:

A teenager, Hannah Baker, takes her own life. Before she dies, she records audio cassettes describing the 13 events that lead to her wanting to end her life. Each event is linked to a specific person, usually someone who mistreated Hannah. The series mainly follows Clay, a guy who had a complicated relationship with Hannah, listening to the tapes, unfolding the story of Hannah’s experience.

The show is intense in a lot of ways. It depicts multiple incidents of rape. It demonstrates a harsh cruelty of school and teenage culture. And, the scene in which Hannah takes her own life is graphic.

I recently set out to watch the series because (a.) I teach high schoolers (b.) I teach our peer-listener program, which trains teens to help peers who need help, and (c.) I have had countless incidents of having to identify and find support for students who are feeling suicidal. After just three days, I watched all thirteen episodes.

But though I was engaged show, I was left unsettled, trying to pinpoint what bothered me most. Was it the graphic imagery? The portrayal of teachers as, at minimum oblivious, at worst incompetent contributors to the problem? Was it that I was conflicted: To what extent did the show urge viewers to be kinder versus portray suicide as an opportunity for revenge?

I’m not alone in being unsettled. A number of articles have come out recently, expressing concerns, including mental health experts who see it as dangerous for teens to watch.

I’ve also had many talks with colleagues and friends about whether teens should be watching it.

But “Should’s” and “Are’s” are sometimes worlds apart. Like it or not, many of our high schoolers are watching the show and being influenced by it. I know even middle school students are watching it. I’ve had countless conversations with my students about the show in just the last week.

These conversations led me to understand why I was so unsettled by the show: So many teens and adolescents are watching the show without opportunities to process, debrief, or better understand the complexity of mental illness. More importantly, the show ends with a “We need to do better” message without actions steps. What, exactly, should we do better?

This is where educators have an opportunity. If you know your students (or children) are watching the show, find opportunities to engage dialogues. At minimum we can help students better understand the complexity of mental illness. Better yet, we can provide an outlet for students who really need help.

Consider these questions as a starting point:

1. What was your takeaway from the series?

Lead with this one. Most students mention that the show helped them understand how their actions affect others. Although this is a pretty “stock” response, I’ve been impressed with how clearly students are able to discuss their own examples on both the giving and receiving end of social adversity. Still, this question opens up deeper dialogue for the questions that follow.

2. How does the atmosphere and conduct of our school compare to the school depicted in the series?

I was irritated by the depiction educators and adults as either aloof or antagonistic. I know adults and educators care. Nevertheless, students may still perceive adults as uncaring. That perception matters: If students don’t feel comfortable talking to adults about issues, then we will be oblivious to what is really happening in their world. This question creates a great space to talk about what is being done in our schools – and what could be done better to help kids in need. It also opens up conversation about how teens treat each other.

3. What about mental health do you think was accurate from the show? What do you think was missing?

Although 13 Reasons Why expresses a multidimensional view of suicide – that it stems from more than just a single event – it also fails to address complexity of mental illness. Genetic history, self-concept, biochemistry, coping strategies, and access to support systems are just a few of the many other factors that play into mental illness. This is why there is critical need to help students understand mental health more completely. We, as teachers, can be the first line in that fight.

4. What about dating and relationships do you think was accurate from the show? What do you think was missing?

The core of these questions is more than just “love gone wrong.” 13 Reasons Why is overt in its criticism of rape culture and sexual assault. While not every teacher will feel comfortable going into those topics with students, at bare minimum we can talk about how the culture of relationships affects well-being.

5. What do you think could have been done to get Hannah support or prevent her from taking her own life?

Elicit more than just “people should be nicer to each other” as an answer. Segue into conversations about warning signs. For example, many adolescents (and adults) scoff at evidence of self-harm as “attention-seeking,” ironically failing to help these students get the healthy support and attention they need. For an overview of warning signs consult The Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-someone-else/)

6. What would you do if you knew one of your peers was struggling emotionally or psychologically?

Beyond just knowing warning signs, teens need action steps. Again, The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a great starting point. If your school has a peer counseling program, leverage it in this conversation. At bare minimum, students need to know the importance of reaching out to adults – parents, teachers, counselors, and even public safety in emergencies. We also have to help students rally beyond the “fear of snitching.” For example, many students don’t know that social media sites like Facebook have anonymous ways to report concerning posts.

7. What do you do when you are stressed or struggling?

A major factor in maintaing mental health is having coping and stress management strategies. These include more than the pseudo-strategy of “think positive.” Learn what students are doing to manage stress. Then, if needed, help them identify other strategies.

National Institute of Mental Health https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml

National Alliance on Mental Health

https://www.imh.com.sg/wellness/page.aspx?id=558

Critical to this conversation is iterating the importance of getting support externally if the stress is overwhelming, whether that is finding people in whom to confide or seeking professional help from a trained therapist.

Some may mistakenly believe that talking about 13 Reasons Why with students is endorsing a controversial show. It’s not. Talking about the series is an opportunity to dispel the “controversy” around discussing mental illness. Absence of dialogue is dangerous – as this series and our history with mental health shows. Don’t ignore the fact that teenagers are drawn to this show. Be the safe, empathic outlet that students need for their voices to be heard.

A version of this post originally appeared on www.WeAreTeachers.com

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. tracy1426 says:

    I talked with my youth at church about this show and specifically the topic of mental health and suicide this past week. I like your questions, and I did ask them to tell me one good takeaway from the show, and then something that left them a little bothered or questioning. One thing all the teenagers told me about the “aloof” adults and counselors, is that they felt it was a very accurate portrayal of what teachers and even counselors act like in their real school setting. They felt the counselor was trying to get to the bottom of something, but ultimately didn’t follow through, however counselor’s in schools now are usually pretty overwhelmed with not only kids with issues, but paperwork, standardized testing, other jobs they are put in charge of that they never dreamed they would be when they wanted to become a counselor! The English teacher seemed genuinely concerned, and youth saw her as basically a good person, but again, no follow through. All my 7th-12th graders felt this was how it REALLY is at school. My middle school kids didn’t even know who the counselor at their school was! When I told them, they just said, “oh, I thought he was the guy in charge of testing”. Just a perspective from teen brains about the adults. I did of course tell kids that if they or a friend is ever talking about or feeling like taking their lives, they need to find an adult who will take it seriously, and if one seems to brush it off, they need to go to another until they find one who will.

  2. Ocean Bream says:

    I had similar feelings after finishing the show. It was way more than just entertainment. It’s terrifying because a lot of adolescents do feel as though their teachers don’t care, or don’t want to know. I know that when I was in high school just three years ago, I felt as though my advisors didn’t care and even if they did, couldn’t help me because my issues were completely out of their hands. And I felt that because they couldn’t help me, they wouldn’t want to know. But maybe it was just a case of needing to talk to someone understanding.

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