13 Reasons Why: What Do Youth Development Professionals Need to Know?
MAY 23, 2017
BY: JODIE MARTIN, MENTOR: THE NATIONAL MENTORING PARTNERSHIP
Over the past several weeks, many youth development professionals have become aware of the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, which revolves around the suicide of a female high school student, Hannah Baker. Due to its fast-spreading popularity, whether or not you have seen it, you may have received questions from parents and youth about the themes that are addressed in the series. These themes, many of which are uncomfortable and controversial, are nonetheless important to talk about, especially with students of a similar age to the characters depicted on the show. Conversations about mental health and suicide can reduce the stigma behind these experiences to allow those who are suffering to know that they are not alone and can get help. However, because of the complexity of these topics and the ways in which they are depicted in the series, parents/guardians, school administrators, and youth development professionals should be aware of the questions and concerns young people may have after watching it, so they can be prepared for the important discussions the series may spark.
For those who are unfamiliar with the series’ premise, the story unfolds through a series of pre-recorded tapes on which the main character, Hannah Baker, describes thirteen reasons that led up to her suicide. Through the episodes the audience finds out that Hannah has had many rumors spread about her, and that eventually she was the target of bullying, social isolation, and sexual abuse. Below, we offer some information about the complex themes addressed in the show, and where you can go for more resources. As we know many parents and youth development professionals have been addressing these topics with youth, we invite you to post other resources and tips you have found useful in the comments section below.
First of all, it is important to acknowledge that 13 Reasons Why depicts a more accurate image of peer-bullying than much of mainstream media before it. In this show, Hannah isn’t shoved against a locker for her lunch money, as we’ve seen in oversimplified depictions of bullying in schools, but she was the victim of many rumors that were spread across the school. She was affected in so many unanticipated ways that even the perpetrators of this bullying, in some cases, were unaware of the harm they were inflicting. Later in the series, the audience learns that the spreading of seemingly harmless rumors served as a catalyst to a range of more extreme circumstances. Although the events that originally caused the rumors were mild and not intended to hurt Hannah, they came with unforeseen consequences that are represented in several of the tapes Hannah left behind. For parents, guardians, and youth development professionals, this raises the importance of noticing when bullying is taking place and responding with urgency. Here are some helpful guides for adults that describe warning signs of bullying, including resources relevant for both youth being bullied and youth who are doing the bullying.
Additionally, the NMRC is currently working on a review of the research on the effectiveness of mentoring relationships as a support to youth who have been bullied – check our Practice Reviews page later this summer to view it.
In 13 Reasons Why, Hannah’s encounters with bullying are intertwined with her eventual experience of sexual assault and rape. The show emphasizes why adults must be prepared to talk with youth about how to keep themselves safe, recognize the signs that a young person may have been a victim of sexual assault, and intervene to help young people who have faced sexual assault get support. RAINN provides a host of resources that youth development professionals can provide to parents and caregivers to help them address this topic with their children, as well as information on warning signs for youth of different ages, and resources for survivors.
Additionally, this NMRC Resource, created by the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), reviews recommendations for mentors to help them respond if a young person discloses a history of or experience with sexual assault.
Mental Health and Suicide
Another critical topic in 13 Reasons Why is mental health, especially in relation to suicide. On the show, the audience witnesses Hannah’s very graphic suicide. Not only can scenes like this be disturbing to watch, both for adults and youth, but they can trigger those who have been or are currently suicidal. Additionally, some characters in 13 Reasons Why who are listening to Hannah’s tapes also show signs of worsening mental health as they struggle to cope, including poor hygiene, changes in eating habits, self-harm, abusing drugs and alcohol, and a decline in academics. These behaviors should also be acknowledged as an indication that individuals need support. Adults involved in the lives of youth should understand the importance of having conversations around mental health, suicide, grieving and dealing with loss, and be prepared to handle young people’s disclosures about these issues sensitively and with the urgency they require. The show depicts the poor handling of Hannah’s disclosure of her suicidal feelings to a school administrator, which does not represent the ideal model of these critical conversations. This makes it all the more important for parents and youth development professionals to emphasize that youth should reach out for help if they are feeling suicidal or unsafe. For reference, here is a resource that lays out some warning signs of suicide:
For mentoring professionals, this NMRC Key Topics page provides important context and resources for mentoring programs to support them in implementing programming that is responsive to youth with mental health needs, including youth at risk for suicide. There, you’ll find a number of program reviews about mentoring programs that have implemented targeted programming for youth with mental health needs, and can read about key takeaways, program design considerations, and implementation tips based on existing mentoring research.
For school professionals, here is where you can download the Model School Policy on Suicide Prevention by American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
Fortunately, there are many resources that highlight talking points around mental health and suicide to guide conversations with youth during or after they watch this show. Many of these resources encourage parents and guardians to watch the show alongside youth to better understand the content of the series and what questions and concerns it may raise. It is important to acknowledge that 13 Reasons Why also displays other complex issues such drug/alcohol abuse. Although there aren’t current materials on talking points for those watching the show on this topic, here is a general resource as a place to start:
Being aware of the experiences of our youth, including the media they are exposed to, is a critical starting point for providing the support they need. In the comments section below, we hope you’ll share your own insights, recommendations and resources based on conversations you’ve had with youth in your lives about the complex themes depicted in 13 Reasons Why.