I’m not sure what Netflix was thinking.
“13 Reasons Why,” a wildly popular Netflix series, spends 12 episodes portraying the life of young Hannah, a bright, creative, lonely, articulate and highly depressed teenager trying to find her way through the agonizing haze of adolescent angst. Themes of betrayal, bullying and sexual assault are central factors in Hannah’s unyielding pain. Unable to find adequate support from either friends or adults, the 13th episode offers an elaborate and detailed portrayal of her suicide.
The story centers on Hannah’s death as a well-thought-out plan to exact revenge on fellow students and clueless authority figures. Through the use of flashbacks, the hidden message is that Hannah is finally able to be understood while also experiencing vindication for the many injustices she has experienced through her time in high school.
Under the guise of offering a dramatic depiction of the gantlet teenagers are often forced to navigate, this series actually provides a dangerous blueprint for how to end pain. It also provides motivation for such an ending by encouraging a very specific kind of magical thinking: “If I commit suicide, I will finally be heard and offered remorse by those who have caused me pain.”
As a clinician and developmental researcher, I’ve spent the past four decades working with my colleagues Bert Powell and Glen Cooper to establish protocols for parents and educators that support emotional health in children of all ages. Our research is clear: The needs of children aren’t written in hieroglyphics. The primary needs of children are actually quite simple.
Here’s what we now know: Every child requires at least one person (preferably an adult) who embodies clarity, kindness and commitment. Consider it a mantra: “I’m here. You matter to me. We’re going to get through this together.” 1. Strength. 2. Kindness. 3. Unwavering follow through. Had Hannah experienced such unflinching availability from one classmate, teacher or parent, she may not have made the choice to kill herself. (Side note: Once depression has taken hold, it often becomes much harder for this message to find a way through to a child. This is why we recommend beginning the path to security in the earliest years of life.)
The good news is that we’re not talking rocket science. But we’re also not talking technique. In working with parents and teachers, our work has shown that we can’t paste a “new game plan” on top of limited awareness and commitment. The anxious parent or teacher, the disinterested parent or teacher, the clueless parent or teacher, the aggressive parent or teacher can’t suddenly pretend that a few words will make a difference.
Pronouncements don’t make the difference. Honest, caring, consistent availability is the central requirement.
As it turns out, children are excellent at reading between the lines, at knowing our deeper intention. Children actually (intuitively) know that they matter, even when they’re sure they don’t. This means they are waiting for someone to genuinely confirm their innate value in an ongoing way. I have yet to meet a child who will settle for anything less than firm, steady, no nonsense commitment.
Once again: “I’m here. You matter to me. We’re going to get through this together.” The importance of “13 Reasons Why” is the implication that this specific message from one adult or classmate could have changed the entire equation for Hannah. The best-case scenario for this series is that teens and parents will look at it together and openly discuss its many implications.
The problem with the series is that many teens will watch it alone – depressed teens, lonely teens, confused teens who feel they have no one to turn to. As they contemplate Hannah’s life as similar to their own, they may begin considering the implication that there are, in fact, valid and acceptable reasons to end one’s life. Unfortunately, this story is told too well, making Hannah very compelling and all too easy to identify with, while offering a single solution to her pain.
How many teenagers watching this series will identify with her anguish and her desire to finally be understood, while also getting even? One in 10,000? One in 1,000? One in 100?
With more than 5,000 teen suicides predicted for this year, should one copycat death be the result of this series it would be one too many. My fear is that the number will be higher.
My sad hunch: It already is.
Dr. Kent Hoffman is a clinician and developmental researcher and co-founder of Circle of Security International. With Glen Cooper and Bert Powell, he is co-author of “Raising a Secure Child.”
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