Listen: Adolescent psychologist Collett Smart talks to Katrina Roe about her concerns about ’13 Reasons Why’. Above: Hannah in ’13 Reasons Why’. Source: Official trailer, Youtube.
The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has polarised audiences, with teens both loving it and disturbed by it, parents troubled by it, and pyschologists issuing warnings.
Released in Australia in March, the show is based on Jay Asher’s best-selling novel in which teenager Hannah narrates the months leading to her suicide. She leaves behind cassette tapes that blame the people in her life for forcing her to choose death. Suicide is arguably depicted as a kind of guilt-laying revenge.
Australia’s youth mental health foundation Headspace told ABC they’ve received many calls from teens and parents distressed by the graphic show, some considering “whether suicide is an option for them”.
Supporters say the show is an important exploration of teen issues, but adolescent psychologist Collett Smart told Hope 103.2 it exploits the shock value of suicide.
“It definitely has one of the most explicit suicide scenes that most of us [in the psychologist world] have ever seen,” she said. “It’s been called an audio-visual manual for suicide. It’s extremely detailed and explicit.”
That’s troubling, she says, because too much detail can trigger copycat attempts.
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“As soon as suicide is reported in details like when, where and how, research in Australia has indicated about a 39 percent increase in male ‘contagion’, we call it, and a 31 percent increase in females, when there’s too much detail.”
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Affecting Young Peoples’ Behaviour
Concerns about copycat attempts aren’t exaggerated.
In America and Canada, school leaders have been warning parents about the show, with one Schools Superintendent in Palm Beach County, Florida, seeing an increase in troubling behaviour.
“School District personnel have observed an increase in youth at-risk behavior at the elementary and middle school levels, to include self-mutilation, threats of suicide, and multiple [mental health committals],” writes Robert Avossa, in a letter reprinted by the Washington Post. “Students involved in the recent incidents have articulated associations of their at-risk behavior to the 13 Reasons Why Netflix series.”
Blame and Revenge Themes are Unrealistic & Dangerous
Collett Smart says the main character’s assumption that her death will be sweet revenge, and that her enemies ‘will be sorry in the end’, is unrealistic.
“In real life when people take their own lives, you can never look back and see what people now think,” she said. “The destructive factor that suicide brings into families and peoples’ lives is absolutely horrendous.”
She’s also critical of the show’s silence on mental illness, and the support available.
“There’s no mention of depression with the character, there’s no decent adult in the show at all,” she said. “The school counsellor that Hannah approaches is largely shocking in her approach. She takes a phone call in the middle of a session which is totally ridiculous. Young people will look at that and think ‘I won’t even ask for help because school counsellors aren’t helpful’.
“Everything’s secretive. Adults aren’t consulted. It doesn’t explore the issues around suicide in a healthy way.”
There’s no doubt 13 Reasons Why is addictive, with many fans ‘binge-watching’ as the messages on the tapes draw viewers in.
“It’s cleverly designed,” said Collett. “But the criticism is that it’s not handling suicide in a healthy way at all.”
Opinion columnist Wendy Squires wrote in The Age that the premise of blame was ‘wrong’.
“These tapes indicate her suicide was the result of others’ actions, and suicide is NOT that,” she writes. “External reasons such as bullying and sexual assault as portrayed in the series may contribute, but only one person makes the final decision.
“There is nothing triumphant about losing a life for payback.”
Talking About Suicide is Important
Netflix argues that the show is sparking important conversations, and has launched a website directing people to mental health support in their local area.
One 19-year-old suicide survivor, Maddie Robinson, has defended the show, writing that if it were around when she was younger, “perhaps I would have felt more comfortable voicing how I was feeling”.
“If concerned adults are unhappy with how suicide is being portrayed in the show and then being discussed by young people, what alternatives do you suggest? Obviously, your tactic of avoidance has not worked out well for us.”
“I hear kids saying, ‘The series portrayed my life’…but it’s not their lives, and suicide is not some glamorous solution.”
While 13 Reasons Why has got people talking, though, psychologist Dr Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the US Suicide Prevention organisation SAVE, says the conversations are the wrong kind. He was consulted by Netflix and advised them not to screen the show, according to Syracuse, and he believes it glamorises suicide.
“I hear kids all over saying, ‘The series portrayed my life’,” he told Inquisitr. “But it’s not their lives, and suicide is not some glamorous solution.”
Collett Smart agrees that conversation about the issue is important, as long as it’s healthy conversation.
“We’re not saying ‘don’t talk about suicide’ to young people,” she told Hope 103.2. “Absolutely, talk to young people about the issues with suicide and how it’s important not to keep secrets and how it’s important to get help. Keeping secrets about traumatic events really just causes your problems to magnify.
“Suicidal thoughts can be very difficult and very painful to endure but most people who have those thoughts don’t act out on them. That’s the message we need to be bringing across. There’s always other options.”
What if My Kids are Watching?
Some experts, such as psychologist Michael Oberschneider, have advised parents to stop their kids watching 13 Reasons Why, but Collett Smart suggests parents get familiar with what their kids are seeing.
“If your young people are watching it, start the discussion,” he said. “I would advise parents to dip in and out of the series. If you feel as though you couldn’t sit down and watch it because of your own traumas or experiences, watch parts of it. Even watch some with your teen.
“If your teen is an at-risk teen, I would advise not to be watching the traumatic scenes with them. If they insist you sit with them, ok, but talk to adults about this. There are other options.”
New Zealand authorities have created a special new RP18 rating, advising that teen viewers watch with a parent or guardian.
’13 Reasons Why’ Screen Writer Defends His Work
The writer of the show, Nic Sheff, said that despite the backlash against the graphic nature of the series, he stands by it. He wanted to shock viewers out of the myth that suicide is a neat solution. He should know; he attempted suicide himself, and came back from the brink just in time, when he realised the ugly reality of what he was doing.
Sheff wrote in Vanity Fair that he wants to “make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse”.
“My own life was saved when the truth of suicide was held up for me to see in all its horror.”
“It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all,” he writes. “In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all.”
“I stand behind what we did 100 percent. I know it was right, because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see in all its horror—and reality.”