Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: “13 Reasons Why”: To Watch, or Not To Watch

Note: This is an unabridged version of a column I wrote for GRAND Magazine.

As a parent or grandparent, you cannot escape making the to-watch or not-to-watch decision about 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix 13-hour series that depicts Hannah Baker, a high school student and the show’s central character, who dies by suicide. Hannah leaves behind cassette tapes detailing why she chose to take her life. The tapes are passed from person to person, in order, on Hannah’s prescribed list of people who influenced her decision.

The importance of the topic of teen suicide is beyond dispute:

  • 4600 = Annual number of teen / youth suicides each year (ages 10-24);
  • 12 = Average number of teen suicides per day;
  • 575,000 = Average number of teen suicides attempts per year;
  • 20% = Percent of high school students surveyed who said they have “seriously considered suicide”;
  • 157,000 = number of youth between the ages of 10 and 24 who receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at Emergency Departments across the U.S.

(Data compiled by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

However, the 11 million plus Tweets and the ongoing national news coverage speak to the controversy the series has created among its supporters and detractors since its release on March 30.

Reasons to Watch

Here are six reasons, written by Brooks Fitts, self-described as “a kid who almost shared Hannah’s fate,” on why you should watch the show.

1. It realistically portrays what far too many high schools are like in America, today: The bullying, the rampant peer pressure, and constant desire to fit in.

2. It shows just how powerful words and actions are, and how real their consequences can be.

3. It shows the need to rethink how counselors talk about mental health and bullying, especially at the high school level.

4. It accurately shows just how clueless some parents are when it comes to their child’s behavior, and the stunning lack of accountability there is when it comes to technology and online behavior.

5. It can make us question what someone is going through, and the potential need to reach out to others who could be hurting.

6. Finally, it shows high schoolers just how toxic their environment can be, and the real need to be a friend to all – regardless of looks or socioeconomic status.

Reasons To Be Cautious / Don’t Watch It

1. “It [13 Reasons Why] depicts suicide and rape in graphic, cringing detail, and some viewers have felt as though the show is asking them to become voyeurs, to be titillated by watching a teenage girl’s body in pain.”

2. “Critics . . . have worried that it [13 Reasons Why] may glamorise suicide or normalise it as a legitimate option when dealing with interpersonal predicaments – leading to more suicides. It is well known that suicide can be a contagious phenomenon. ‘Copycat’ suicides are seen in local clusters from time to time.”

3. “Dr Shain [MD, PhD, child psychiatrist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Illinois] also noted that the series ‘glorifies the suicide, and it explains the suicide as something to do with revenge. It makes it sound desirable, and there is no mention of psychopathology or depression. And the helpers or counselors are depicted as doofuses, so it doesn’t encourage kids to ask for help from the professionals.’ ”

Suggestions to Help You Make Your Decision

I watched the entire series (even binging three episodes), and I am glad that I did. Yes, at times the enactments were shocking and horrifying, but overall I found it to be eye opening, thought-provoking, and informative.

Even if a parent or grandparent decides not to watch the series, I suggest they:

(1) Watch 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons. This is a half-hour discussion comprising the cast, producers, and mental health professionals in which they discuss:

  • Their commitment to telling a story that would help educate and start important conversations about the issues they raise, including bullying, cyber-bulling, depression, slut shaming, sexual assault, and rape.
  • The need to redefine embedded, harmful behaviors, such as the “bro (brother) code” that currently encourages looking the other way in the name of brotherhood, instead of promoting the idea that true friends don’t let others behave irresponsibly without accountability. (In retrospect, I wish I had watched this discussion prior to watching the series, as it provides a tempering context, especially for some of the more difficult-to-watch scenes.)

(2) Read “13 Reasons Why” Netflix Series: Considerations for Educators.” In addition to educators, the material includes helpful information and guidelines for anyone who interacts with teenagers, e.g., parents, grandparents, physicians, counselors, and therapists.

(3) Watch Why We Choose Suicide, Mark Henick, TEDx Toronto. I found this presentation very helpful in better understanding the thought processes and desperation that can lead someone to contemplate or to chose suicide.

In the eighth grade, Henick was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression, which would consequently lead to his first of several suicide attempts. With an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Philosophy and a graduate degree in Child Development, he is a mental health advocate who works with young people in the field of mental health, using his own experiences in the act of suicide to help his patients with mental illnesses.

A major learning point for me from Henick’s presentation was to stop saying someone commits suicide, and instead to say someone dies from suicide. This distinction is important because someone commits rape or commits murder — these are crimes. Suicide is not a crime, it is a mental health issue.

Teens Taking Action!

What better way to end this column than to point out how some enterprising high school students are being proactive after they watched 13 Reasons Why. At Oxford High School, Oakland County, MI, instead of calling out peers they blame for any difficulties they may be dealing with, they are using the morning announcements loudspeaker to publicly broadcast praise for the people who are helping them. Stories from many students are pouring in. Part of the motivation for this effort is to honor a classmate who died by suicide. As one student said, “If we can only save one life, that’s enough.”

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Karen L. Rancourt‘s most recent book is,

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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