13 Reasons Why 13 Reasons Failed

First things first, before I delve into what will be a very long blog post, I want to make sure that everyone has phone numbers if they need them.

National Suicide Hotline   1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line    Text 741741

Let’s jump into the statistics:

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) states that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US.  Each year, 44,193 Americans die by suicide.  For every completed suicide, there are 25 attempted.   According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for ages 10 – 34.  AFSP states that men die by suicide 3.5x more often than women and is highest in white middle-aged males (2015 statistic); however, females attempt suicide three times more often than males.

Here are the risk factors: 

  • Family history of suicide
  • Family history of child maltreatment
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • History of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
  • History of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • Cultural and religious beliefs (e.g., belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma)
  • Local epidemics of suicide
  • Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
  • Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
  • Physical illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods
  • Unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts

The Child Mind Institute includes these factors for teens:

  • A recent or serious loss (this might include family members, friends or even pets)
  • A psychiatric disorder, particular a mood disorder such as depression
  • Prior suicide attempts
  • Alcohol and other substances
    • -Getting into trouble often
    • -Disciplinary problems
    • -High-risk behaviors
  • Struggling with sexual orientation
  • Family History
    • -Domestic Violence
    • -Child Abuse
    • -Neglect
  • Lack of social support
  • Bullying
  • Access to lethal means
  • Stigma associated with asking for help
    • -helpless
    • -hopeless
    • -guilt
    • -shame
  • Barriers to accessing services
  • Cultural and religious beliefs about suicide (some religions believe that it is noble)
  • Suicide Contagion – The US Department of Health and Human Services defines this as “an exposure to suicide within a family, within a group of friends, or through media that increases suicidal behaviors.”

Protective factors:

  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for help seeking
  • Family and community support (connectedness)
  • Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
  • Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation

For teens:

  • Good problem-solving abilities (Coping skills, coping skills, coping skills – I can’t stress this enough)
  • Strong Connections
  • Restrict access to highly lethal means (keep pills, knives, firearms under lock and key)
  • Effective medical/mental health care

My Thoughts on 13 Reasons Why (these are my opinions)

This past weekend, The Dane and I have spent a lot of time around teens and parents of teens.  Inevitably the topic of conversation turned to the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why.  A few of my coworkers posted on Facebook that it was a “must see.” My Pastor even used the series for his sermon.

Dealing with the topic of suicide on an almost daily basis, anytime I hear about a new book, show or song about suicide, I pay attention and I’m usually very skeptical.  On the one hand, I sincerely want there to be a dialog about mental health issues out there; however, done incorrectly, it only adds to the stigma which is difficult enough as it is.  That said, I was very disappointed in 13 Reasons Why.  (Beware, here there be Spoilers.)

I am not a binge watcher by nature and this show has 13 almost hour-long episodes, so I broke it down over the last several days.  Almost from the beginning, red flags started going off in my mind.  Each episode, I would think, please let this be the one where they make some valid points.  By the end of episode 13, I sat with the controller in hand wondering how a show about a teen suicide managed to get so much wrong.  Overall, I felt that the show used a lot of “tricks of the trade” to keep viewers watching. 

Reason 1

I spent most of the time watching the show thinking about how much planning would have to go into making the tapes.  Let’s say that each side was 30 minutes long and the last side was left blank, that means that there was at least 6 hours of recording time.  At some points during her recording, she was actually at the place where things happened, so there was prep time to get there as well.

Then there was the whole packaging of the tapes and taking it to Tony’s.  Hannah would have had to take some time to decide who went on the tapes, what places went on the map, and how the “rules” would be set up.  In order to do that, she had to know Tony well enough to know that he would follow through with her plan.  This all means she thought about her suicide – a lot. One might even come to the conclusion that she was obsessed with it, but this program is hellbent on blaming others.  There is no blaming others no matter how egregious their acts were (and some were awful). 

Suicide is ultimately the choice of the person committing the act.

This isn’t just about a TV show.  There are real people out there with real friends and family members who have committed suicide and I can assure you that there have been thoughts for them about their guilt in causing the person pain.  I know that there is a kid out there who thought for a long time that his dad killed himself because he (the kid) sat on a bag of unopened chips and broke them into tiny pieces which set his dad off.  Feel free to disagree if you’d like, but keep in mind that there are real people and this “blame game” has real world consequences (off the soap box…well…not really).

Reason 2

There is absolutely no mention of mental illness.  There is exactly one scene where Clay’s well-intended parents put a prescription bottle in front of him and encourage him to start taking the medication (again, which suggest he had issues before Hannah’s death – BIG RED FLAG).  That scene made my blood boil. 

Let’s just get this out of the way…Clay has visual hallucinations (he sees Hannah everywhere) all the way through the series, so he obviously has a mental issue.  The introduction of the bottle from his parents is abrupt and awkward which leaves Clay to respond to it in a very abrupt and awkward manner.  Why on earth would any parent do this?  If a girl (who your son worked and had classes with) killed herself and your son had struggled with some mental issues previously, wouldn’t you drag him off to the doctor to get re-evaluated (especially since he is also dealing with the death of his best friend only weeks before)?  Because that’s what should happen.  And there are some really good reasons to do that, because a mental health professional would (or at least should) know how to start a dialog with your son and the doctor would need to give your child a thorough examination to determine what medications were needed not just refill some old prescription.  I find it extremely disingenuous to market a show as dealing with mental illness when it never addresses a single one of them – period. 

Reason 3

Oh, there are signs of mental illness.  Lots of them. 

If you saw the series, think back to the scene with Hannah and Clay at lunch.  This is just after Clay sees the picture of Hannah on that slide with her underwear showing.  He “snaps” at Hannah.  She leaves the cafeteria as if someone just murdered her favorite pet.  This is NOT a normal reaction, even for a teen.  Sure, there could be some other underlying things going on in Hannah’s life.  I’d give you that if this were based on a real person, as it’s “just a movie” they don’t get a pass.  All we have to go on is what the movie makers showed us and this is a huge over reaction.  While I can understand not wanting to have a photo (of me sliding down a slide showing my underwear) or others being told about how easy I am, I don’t think an over-reaction is going to make things better, in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s only going to make things much worse. 

Hannah again over-reacts when she sees her name on “The List.”

Then again when Zach tells her that he likes her.  Of these three scenes, the one with Zach galls me the most.  While it looks like Zach has it all together, it’s a missed point that he’s still a teenager.  Ross Butler who plays Zach is not 15 or 16 years old, he is a 27-year-old man.  Think about a 15 or 16-year-old kid that you know and put him at that table.  Can you see how awkward that conversation might have been for him and how he simply might have talked about the list because he thought it was a compliment.  We’re just talking about a 15-16 year old, trying to ask out a girl he likes.  Remember being that age and how hard it was to do that, either side.  The fear of rejection is so strong that of course, the wrong words can come out of your mouth.  Then you have a girl react like Hannah did, which was (at least to me) very borderline behavior.  Wouldn’t you think, damn, that girl is nuts? 

Hannah also over reacts in the intimate scene with Clay.  That one baffled me.  Sure, it was a set-up to put her in Jess’ room, but it was a nasty little trick and if it was abrupt and confusing for me, I can’t begin to imagine how it affected younger kids.  Parents if you are letting your children watch this, please keep a very open dialog going with them.

Later on, there is a scene with Skye reading Tarot cards for Clay.  The first time I noticed the cuts, I wondered if they were going to address it.  Then Clay makes a point of showing them to the audience.  Then Skye says “Suicide is for the weak.  This is what you do if you’re strong.”  Or something like that.  That statement isn’t true.  Some people who cut kill themselves.  And neither suicide nor cutting indicates weakness or strength. Both require intervention.

There were many other issues related to mental illness/forensics that were given a pass-over – alcoholism, PTSD, antisocial personality disorder, stalking, victim of rape and well, yes, suicide.

Reason 4

What is up with the parents?  These days, watching TV shows that depict parents makes me feel ill.  The way all of the parents react in this drama is so NOT what a real, caring parent would do for their children.  Have a son whose always been straight-laced suddenly suspended from school for pot and you’re just going to let him run off?  Not happening. Telling your kids, “Oh, I’ve never wanted to be the kind of parent that says, I’m here if you want to talk, but (haha) if you want to talk, I’m here for you.”  WTF! 

If TV parents are an indication of any real parents out there, here’s something we really need to talk about – kids need boundaries.  No really, they NEED them.  For a moment, I was going to go google around and find a study, but I’ve decided I’m not going to do that because this one is common sense.  Here’s how it works.  If you don’t tell your kids that it’s dangerous to run across the road in front of traffic, then how are they going to know NOT to do that.  Everything works like that.  Don’t want them to do pot, then tell them, don’t smoke pot.  Will they?  Maybe.  But they will at least know that it is on the other side of the boundary.  In other words, they will know that it’s wrong.  The only parent that I felt like was truly a pretty accurate depiction was Justin’s Mom.  She wasn’t a good parent, but she didn’t act like she was trying to be either.  Where in this whole series was there a truly open depiction of real dialog between parents and children?

Reason 5

The Lawsuit.  Your child comes home and commits suicide in your tub and your first thought (or at least sometime pretty quickly after her death) is to file a lawsuit against the school.  It felt like, file now, figure out how to get the money later.  And there were money problems – whole scenes about it. 

The show goes to a lot of trouble to show you how badly Hannah’s parents were hurting (and the actors do a very good job of grieving), but they put their daughter in the ground with no funeral, no flowers, all because they just wanted to put that part behind them?  Save themselves from embarrassment?  But in their grief they have time to think about a lawsuit pretty quickly.  Wow!

Reason 6

A random couple of niggles. 

At one point, Tony is describing to Clay that he actually saw Hannah’s crime scene (which is unlikely that he was able to just enter the house and walk around the crime scene.  It has happened, but nowadays investigators are pretty savvy about this).  Tony says something to the effect that he came in and Hannah was already in the body bag and he wondered how they were going to pick it up.  Then he says, they just “tossed her into the back of the ambulance.” 

As a medical professional, I found this so highly offensive that it set my teeth on edge.  As this was a death at home, more than likely a coroner would have been called in as he/she would need to secure the scene and make sure there was no foul play involved.  He would pronounce her dead at the scene (most likely) and then paramedics would place her body in a bag, transfer her to a stretcher (which sits low and then lifts to a high position).  The paramedics would then roll the body to the ambulance (assuming they would take the body by ambulance).  At the ambulance, they would snap the wheels up and roll the stretcher into the ambulance and transport her body to the morgue (assuming she had been pronounced).  A very small amount of research on the writer’s part would have given him/her this information and there would be no need to make it look like paramedics don’t give a damn about a girl that committed suicide.  I know lots of paramedics and I don’t know a single one that would handle it the way Tony describes.  (Grr)

I’m kind of wondering why the parents take no responsibility regarding their kids.  I mean they are out drinking, skipping school to go rock climbing, randomly leaving home in the middle of the night without explanations.  And then what happens is the school’s fault?  A lot of the things took place outside of school when the parents were supposed to be paying attention.  Because the kids go to school together, that makes it all the schools fault?

Reason 7

It bugged me a lot that this series was all about the “popular” kids.  Seems like the only kids Hannah was interested in having as friends were those kids.  She even has a conversation with her mother about it at the store.  I mean, there were other kids at the school and there was even Skye who was also pulled into all the gossip by Courtney when she told Montgomery at the dance that the picture was of Skye and Hannah.  This is where I started feeling like there was a bit of an agenda.  Like it’s easy to point the finger at the popular kids and make them pay. 

I wasn’t in the popular “jock” crowd at school.  Coming from a small town, I knew all of them, was friendly with most of them, and here’s the thing that gets missed sometimes.  Popular kids don’t really get a pass in high school either, it’s just as tough for them as it is for the rest of us.  In some cases, more so, because there is the pressure to make the winning touchdown, or throw the winning pitch that strikes out the star on the opposite team.  There’s pressure for the smart kids to keep up their grades.  There’s pressure for everyone and there’s stress-a-plenty to go around.

Reason 8

Which brings me to the term bullying.  Here’s the part that many people are going to disagree with me on, but here goes.  In our society today, we have started throwing around the word bullying quite a lot. We sit high and mighty on that pedestal doling out judgements on those we feel like are bullies.  To top it off, we change the definition frequently to suit whatever offense we want to take from whatever occurred.  But there are consequences to doing that.  Those kids that get labeled bully for these small offenses somehow don’t get to have feelings? And it detracts from the students who are truly getting bullied.

STOMP Out Bullying describes the word “bully” as a person who is habitually cruel to others, that there is an imbalance of power and the bully uses bullying behavior towards others on a CONSTANT basis to maintain power over others.  There is an example on the site from a 10 year-old girl who said she was being bullied. When asked, she told them that a boy teased her because he liked her.  STOMP states that they had to explain to the girl that this was normal social interaction.

STOMP states that due to overuse, we have become desensitized to the word and they warn that this can be harmful to kids who are truly being bullied. They state, “We are creating a world of victims! We cannot become victims by one time events – or because we didn’t hear what we wanted to hear from the person we were speaking to.”

In order to truly see if Hannah is being bullied as much as we are led to believe, we need to think critically about the offenses.  That means, do the actions of the students truly meet the criteria for the term bullying.  We do this by asking ourselves:

C1. Is it aggressive behavior or intentional ‘harm doing’?
C2. Is it carried out repeatedly over time?
C3. Does it occur within an interpersonal relationship characterized by an imbalance of power?

In the case of this show, let’s take a look.  There’s Jess who stopped being friends with Hannah because she started liking the boy that they were both friends with.  True that later on she slapped Hannah  over it, but in the beginning, Jess and Alex left Hannah because she was the third wheel.  Sucks, but really they didn’t owe her anything.  Sometimes friends move on.  It happens.

Was Jess a bully?  No.  Hannah is usually included in the “popular” group and not for the express purpose of singling her out.  In fact, most of the time, it seems her presence is welcomed.  Does Sheri?  No.  Courtney? No.  Justin?  Yes.  Clay?  No.  Tony?  No.  Tyler?  No, but he is most definitely a creep (we’ll come back to that).  Marcus?  He meets C1 and C3, but so far as the series suggests, he doesn’t repeat the action.  Zach? Yes. Ryan?  No.  (Though he is guilty of being an ass).  Bryce?  He’s more than just a bully.  Mr. Porter?  No. Unnamed students (graffiti)?  It would seem so.  Um…Hannah?  She created 6 1/2 tapes to make her classmates feel bad that she killed herself – I’d say she was a bully.

The thing about the way this is betrayed is that it makes almost everything we could say to each other fodder for “bullying.” So much so that there are now memes about this.  

Example:

Hannah:  Can I borrow a pencil? 

Kid:  This is the only one I have. 

Hannah:  Here’s your tape.

The problem here is that the show forgets that we are humans having a human experience.  We can label bullying until doomsday and we aren’t going to change how humans naturally react to things, which is quite different from bullying.  My belief is that the surest way to help people deal with bullying or poor interactions (as some of this is) is to teach good coping skills and effective communication.   Teach kids to openly talk to adults instead of hiding and keeping secrets (which is exactly what this show is teaching kids to do).

When our youngest daughter was in middle grades, she came home one night and started picking over her dinner.  Now this is our vivacious child.  The one full of stories, who told us much about the goings on inside her world.  It didn’t take much to pick up on the fact that there was something very wrong.  After dinner, The Dane took her aside to get to the root of the problem.  It turned out that as a result of her getting new glasses, a classmate that she liked a lot, had started calling her four-eyes.  Knowing the classmate pretty well, The Dane was fairly sure that the kid was only calling her that because someone had probably called him that when he got his glasses.  The Dane had a tender little conversation with our daughter and as she was leaving the room, he said, “You got that four-eyes.”  She laughed and turned around to her dad (who also wears glasses) and said, “You’re the four-eyes.”  For several days, they ran around calling each other four-eyes and our daughter remained friends with her classmate. 

Years later, she came home again.  This time, someone had called her gay.  She talked about it at the dinner table.  At one point, she turned to The Dane and said, “I’m not gay, so I didn’t let it bother me.”  After a moment of introspection, she said, “I wonder if they are and that’s why they are picking on me.”  A few days later, she came home again and at dinner she told us that she had talked to the kid and it turned out he was gay and really struggling with it.  As a result, her friend now had someone to confide in and our daughter had learned very good coping skills. 

My point is, she wouldn’t have learned how to cope if The Dane hadn’t tackled the problem in the beginning when it was small and manageable.  And just imagine how that simple scenario might have turned out if he’d dragged her off to school and accused that eye-glass kid of bullying her.

Reason 9

Tyler was a freaking stalker.  This is a crime!  He purposely stalked Hannah to watch her undress and took pictures of her.  A person who does this gets sexual gratification from watching other people.  It’s a compulsion.  Information on stalkers is growing (though probably nowhere near complete).  There are basically five types:  1.  Rejected – which is described as a person who was in a relationship with a person and wants revenge when the relationship ends 2.  Intimacy seeker – this is the person who believes they are in a relationship with a person and begins to behave as if they are 3. Incompetent subtype – this person knows that there is no relationship, but wants one.  Usually, they send love letters and pictures of themselves (relentlessly).  4.  Resentful – this person desires revenge against a person, not a relationship 5.  Predator – wants power and control. 

This kid is committing a crime and it never really gets addressed.  This character was a bit nerdy and awkward, but overall, I felt that he was played down to look sort of sympathetic.  A real missed opportunity to give people the information they need to protect themselves from stalkers.

Reason 10

Hannah’s reaction to Jess’ rape.  Wow!  There is so much about this part that went wrong from Justin’s actions to Hannah’s.  I found it very difficult to see Hannah (a very out-going not-too-shy about saying what she pleased face-to-face) not being able to come out of the closet to save her friend.  It’s plausible, but still terrible. The show presents it from a “bystander effect,” but I believe it has more to do with the fight-or-flight response.  Again, another missed opportunity.

I simply couldn’t understand why any one of those kids would decide to sit by and not do anything once they heard that part on the tape.  If they could do that, then there is a lot more going wrong at Liberty High than what happened to Hannah. 

Hannah freely admits her lack of helping her friend, but in doing so and then passing out the tapes, she heaped a lot of harm on all of the others.  She pulled a guy that stole her compliments into covering up a stalker and a serial rapist.  She possibly ruined his chances at a goal he’s probably been working toward his whole life because he hurt her feelings. Yes, I know that the compliments meant something to her, but at every turn when someone tried to get close to her, she pushed them away. Like her reaction to kissing Clay.  It wasn’t normal and again, the opportunity to talk about mental illness was missed.

Reason 11

So in response to what she witnessed, what does Hannah do?  Go to the cops?  No.  Tell her parents?  No.  She’s not home having long talks with herself about how she could do something to help her friend (and I don’t care if that friend did slap her), no, instead, she’s out late at night rambling around and ends up, of all places, at Bryce’s house.  She gets pulled in by a party where there are two couples and Bryce.  Instead of being completely terrified out of her mind, she gets into a hot tub in her underwear.  That’s just all kinds of messed up.  And very young kids are watching that. And on top that, they witness another rape scene.

Reason 12

Teachers.  Who hired these people?  I could talk about the principle and the Communications teacher, but it was the counselor that really bothered me.  From the beginning, he seemed off somehow.  Then he tells her to “get over it.”  I understand that this is a plot device, but in the larger scheme, this would’ve been so much better if he had been the one to shed light on everything, to be able to save her just by asking one question which any counselor worth their salt would have asked.  Are you suicidal?  We have all this preaching going on in the background and the one person who should have known to ask, didn’t.  What a lost opportunity.

Reason 13

There was no forgiveness.  Hannah held onto everything and let nothing go even when she was told directly that someone was sorry.  There was no attempt in the whole series to show any redemption of any of the characters.  It was mostly all about how do we save our own skins.  There were no close relationships even with those people who were supposed to be good friends with each other.  No one talked to anyone else on a full on emotional level.  Every bit of it seemed superficial. 

There was no discussion on creating coping skills and how to implement them. 

And worst of all, no spiritual discussion aside from Tony mentioning twice that he was Catholic and Jess’ family about to pray.  This bothered me the most.  It left the whole series hanging out there like a hot mess.  It amazed me that a whole entire series about suicide was only using the suicide as a plot device and missed every single opportunity to really do something real and special about the subject itself.

___________________

Are there any positives to be gained from these 13 hours of my life spent watching this program, taking notes and trying to be sure I have an understanding of what it going on so that I can better discuss it with those that will surely be talking to me about it in the days to come?

Maybe it will open a real dialog about mental illness. 

Maybe it’ll make more people post the suicide hotline number.

Maybe more people won’t be afraid to ask if someone is feeling suicidal. 

Maybe people will want to find out all the information they can on suicide so that can prevent a death.

Maybe it will make people a little nicer to each other. 

I sure hope so.

~PJ

(If you have any thoughts on the series, I’d like to hear them.  Feel free to disagree with my points, but please be respectful.)

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