A School's Guide to 13 Reasons Why
If you are a teacher or work in any capacity in a high school or middle school, you have almost certainly heard about the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. Have you watched it yet? If you haven’t, I recommend that you do simply because your students are watching it and talking about it. And this show is intense. And disturbing. It’s a lot to handle, even for an adult. And your students are not adults. They are vulnerable teens—teens who are likely to relate to the characters in the show but won’t know how to process their feelings about the disturbing issues the show brings up.
Summary of the show
In case you aren’t familiar with the storyline, Hannah Baker is a high school junior who takes her own life. Before she dies, she records 13 cassette tapes explaining the things that led to her decision to kill herself. Each tape focuses on a person in her life and the way that person hurt her or let her down. Many of the things Hannah experiences are, sadly, in the realm of “normal” for our teens. Hannah is teased, objectified, and labeled a “slut.” She is let down by friends and even some adults in her life. She is insecure and struggles to advocate for herself or reach out for help. The other tragic experiences Hannah has are hopefully less typical, but still happen to a frightening number of our teens.
Issues addressed in the show
Hannah witnesses her friend being raped and is raped herself. These rapes are portrayed graphically in the show and are so disturbing to watch. To a teen who has been raped or assaulted, these scenes could be devastating. Until the final episode of the show, neither of the girls who is raped tells anyone or asks for help. Hannah tries to reach out to the school counselor, but he basically tells her to “get over it.” This does not inspire hope in a teenager that telling someone about his or her assault will result in being heard and connected with help.
The show also graphically portrays Hannah’s suicide. She takes her own life by cutting her wrists in a bathtub. The viewer watches as she cuts deep into her arms and bleeds to death. It’s incredibly hard to watch and will be particularly disturbing for our teens to witness, particularly if they struggle with suicidal tendencies.
And what about the Clay Jensens of your school—the bystanders? The students who care about their friends and want to be there for them? The message of the show is this: “We all killed Hannah Baker.” How terrifying is that to a teen—the idea that they are responsible for the choices of another?
In the final episode, Clay says, “It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.” That is a message I fully agree with. Teens (and adults alike) need to treat each other better and show Christ’s love and hope to those around them. As adults who work with students, we can teach teens how to care for each other without feeling responsible for the choices of others. We need to teach teens to recognize warning signs of suicide in their friends and to tell an adult when they do. We can empower them without burdening them.
Issues not addressed in the show
Throughout the series, the message is that Hannah Baker had many reasons to kill herself. But she also had reasons to LIVE. That is not focused on or emphasized at all. There is no message of hope—no recognition that even when you feel the way Hannah felt, you have options besides suicide.
Until the final episode, not one teen in the show reaches out to an adult for help or support, so they muddle through, hurting themselves and each other in the process. The show does a frighteningly good job of sharing the pain and struggles our teens may go through, but it does not help them know what to do with those feelings. Teens need to know that there are trusted adults they can go to—adults who will listen to them and help them.
The show also does not address the factor of mental illness in relation to suicide. Hannah Baker kills herself, in part, to take revenge on those who wronged her. In reality, 90% of those who commit suicide have an underlying mental illness. Our students need to know that mental health issues are treatable, and suicide can be preventable, with timely and specific intervention from a professional counselor.
As teachers and leaders in our schools, you have an awesome yet weighty responsibility to guide our youth during some of the most challenging years of their lives. But we have a foundation that will never let us down. We have our faith and hope in Christ. We have God’s Word to guide us and give us strength, direction, and hope. We need to pair that hope with access to psychiatric care and counseling for our teens who need it. With both of these working together, we have the ability to offer our teens hope and a future.
WAYS SCHOOLS CAN HELP A SUICIDAL TEEN
So what do you do now that you know more about this series? How do you help your students who are so affected by this show? The first thing you can do is be aware of the warning signs of suicide. Here is a list of some of the most common:
- Changes in behavior, including isolating from friends and quitting activities; declining grades, decreased appetite; increased fatigue; poor school attendance
- Changes in mood, including sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, and helplessness
- Statements such as “The world would be better without me,” “I wish I were never born,” “No one would miss me if I were dead,” and “I wish I were dead”
- Giving away possessions that are important to them
- Psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, bipolar, psychotic disorders
- Self-harm behavior and history of suicide attempts
- A sudden brightening of mood with no clear explanation
- ANYTHING ELSE that feels off. Trust your instincts. If you are worried about a student, don’t just dismiss it.
Steps to take if you are concerned about a student
Once you identify a student that you are concerned about, you need to know what to do next.
- Reach out to the student and let them know what you have observed. Show them you are concerned and want to listen.
- Then LISTEN! Don’t just hear what you want to hear; listen to what they might not be saying as well.
- Ask open-ended questions that allow them to share what they are thinking, feeling, or experiencing. Ask if they have seen 13 Reasons Why and how it made them feel. Ask if it brought up any concerns or if they related to any of the characters. (Click here for a PDF of discussion starters for parents and teens, which can be customized for school use.)
- Ask them about suicide or self-harm. Asking will not put the idea in their head, but it might give them the opportunity to open up to you.
- Create a safety plan with them. Safety plans have a few important components:
- Ways to cope
- People they can (and actually will) ask for help
- A plan for an emergency
Have the teen list at least three ways to cope and people they can ask for help. Be creative. Maybe they won’t go to their parents, but they could go to an aunt, their best friend’s mother, a teacher, a pastor, their older sibling, etc. Click here for a downloadable coping plan.
- Provide them with resources. For the National Suicide Hotline, call 1.800.273.TALK. For the Suicide Textline, text CONNECT to 741741.
- Tell your student whom you are going to tell about their struggles. You are likely going to need to at least tell their parents, so be honest with them about that. Explain why and how much you will share.
- If they are reporting suicidal thoughts or urges, refer them to the appropriate level of care. Either provide resources for outpatient counseling, or help arrange inpatient admission if needed.
- Remind them that you care and will pray for them, and ask them if there is anything else you can do to help.
If you are concerned about a struggling teen, WLCFS-Christian Family Solutions has a full staff of professional Christian counselors who work with children and teens regarding mental health issues. Services can be provided in person at our clinic locations or via secure video from anywhere. Our counselors can also provide consultation services for teachers of struggling students. Call 800.438.1772 for more information.
Coming Next: A Struggling Teen’s Guide to 13 Reasons Why
Elizabeth Robinson is a Licensed Professional Counselor with 10 years of experience counseling adolescents with mental health issues in outpatient and psychiatric day treatment settings. She works extensively with teens who are suicidal and engage in self-harm.