I started watching Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why yesterday afternoon thinking that it would be another teen drama. A day later, I’ve binged the whole series, and I can say conclusively that it is actually like no other teen drama that I’ve ever seen.
13 Reasons Why is based on a book of the same name about a girl named Hannah Baker – Hannah commits suicide, and leaves 13 tapes behind, one for each person who contributed to her ultimately killing herself.
It spoke to me in a way that I did not anticipate. I’ve dealt with depression on and off for my entire life, and I struggled with suicidal thoughts often in my youth. I have never seen a show or movie that dealt with depression and suicide so honestly. 13 Reasons Why does an incredible job of exploring the interplay of depression, peer pressure, harmful gender roles, sexual assault, bullying, grief, and the loneliness and confusion that one can feel as a teenager. And I think that sometimes people forget this about adolescence – yes, it can be fun, and exciting, and carefree in the days before “real” responsibility, when everything in life is still brand new. But it can also be lonely as hell. It can be hard. And too often, adults can minimize the overwhelming feelings of adolescence. It’s easy for us, on the other side, to overlook the very real struggles that teenagers deal with. It’s also easy to gloss over things. In my time working in health communication this has happened so many times. I pushed and pushed to create brutally honest resources for parents and teens on issues like sexuality and mental health. I remember once talking to a team who wanted to create a resource on teen suicide, and one of my supervisor’s felt that even saying something along the lines of “to prevent them from committing suicide” was too graphic. Too horrible. It would make people uncomfortable reading it. I wanted to write a piece on talking to teenagers about sex and consent, but was met with the same pushback. We don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. But here’s the thing – we are not doing teens thinking about killing themselves any favours by sitting in our comfort.
Suicide should make us uncomfortable.
The teens in 13 Reasons Why frequently skirt around having awkward conversations with their parents and each other. They say that everything’s fine, despite how incredibly obvious it is that things are not. They avoid. And in the end, their avoidance of discomfort leads to tragedy.
Every parent I’ve ever talked to has said that they “want their kids to be able to talk to them about anything” even things that are really hard. But how can we expect teenagers to open up these conversations when we’re so afraid of them ourselves. It is too horrible to imagine that our own children could do horrible things, and so we avoid even openly acknowledging that these horrible things exist. It is not helpful to simply tell a depressed teenager that “things will get better”; but it might be helpful to open up to them about a time when you also felt hopeless and alone, and how one day things changed.
13 Reasons Why tells a story of teen suicide without talking around it, or romanticizing it. It’s beautiful and compelling. Some scenes are very hard to watch. It’s a little slow in places. And it has a really amazing soundtrack. But more than a good show, I think that it’s an important show. And especially for parents of kids coming up on teenagehood, people who work with teens, and teenagers themselves, it’s a show that can open up those difficult conversations, and take us out of our comfort.