There has been much ado about 13 Reasons Why in the last few weeks. According to Variety, it is the most Tweeted-about show of 2017. The Netflix Series hit the airwaves on March 31 and has been all the buzz at my junior high school. The show is based on a 2007 best selling novel of the same name by Jay Asher featuring a main character, Hannah Baker, who suffers from anxiety and depression, is the victim of cyber bullying, and ends up committing suicide. She leaves a series of cassette tapes as a suicide note for the people who she blames for her anguish and death. While the book’s treatment of this sensitive topic raised a few eyebrows, the TV show’s creators made some changes and
Last fall, when the Netflix series was in production at a Analy High School, not far away from our campus, the author visited our library and talked about his work as a YA author, and about his newest book What Light, a teen romance which is much sweeter and lighter than 13 Reasons. Even though he came to our school to talk about his new novel, plenty of the discussion touched on what inspired him to write the book about teen depression and suicide, and how that has impacted him as a writer. He shared how many times he has received personal letters from young people who read his book, identified with the struggles of bullying and depression, and found it a helpful resource as they worked through feelings of despair and trauma.
But critics are not all in agreement about whether the TV adaptation of his novel is helpful or harmful. Some say it opens up dialogue about a topic no one wants to discuss openly. Critics worry that the show might glamorize suicide as a viable option to personal struggle and sadness. They worry that kids will see the show, which depicts the situations that Hannah Baker faced–even more graphically than the book does–and they will view it as a recipe for suicide and the attention stir. And they are concerned that the adults in the show, especially the school administration and counselor, seem completely out of touch and almost immoral in their inability to help students in their struggles.
NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness points out that the major flaw of the show is that it never touches on the subject of mental illness or any viable treatments for teens suffering from depression, self harm, or anxiety disorders. (source) The show could be a trigger for kids who struggle with mental health problems. Phyllis Alongi, MS, NCC, LPC, ACS, clinical director at the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, says that her organization “does not agree” with many of the aspects portrayed in the show, “Hannah’s story is fictional, tragic, and not the norm,” she says. And unfortunately, teens might not recognize that by watching it. (source)
Realizing that a majority of the students I serve in the school library have seen the show or read the book, I felt like I needed to reach out to parents on the topic, and provide a safe forum for kids to talk in a serious and safe way about the topic of teen mental health, bullying, and even rape. I partnered with our school counselors to organize two discussion circles at lunch time to promote open dialogue about the show, and I wrote an article for the parent newsletter sharing information about the TV show and a link to a parent discussion guide. One of my student assistants who had seen the show several times helped me plan for all of this, and told me that she thought kids would be interested and agreed that they should be talking about this. But sadly, the plans began to unravel when the principal pulled the article from the parent newsletter and barred me from promoting the event with posters and on Instagram. He was worried about any backlash from parents and wanted the article cleared by the district office. I was taken aback, and discouraged.
While I was not forced to cancel the event, I had no effective way to market and promote it. The school counselors and I fought back and were able to get the article, with some edits, sent via email to the parents. So I’m pleased that we reached them with this important information. But my discussion group which had to be promoted only word of mouth ended up with only three kids in attendance–those three were outnumbered by teachers and counselors. We are going to try this again in a couple of weeks, but we are considering different tactics. The messages are too important to just give up now. We need to help kids who are suffering from mental trauma at this age where they suffer the most. Sadly, its too late for the 14 year old girl from a nearby school who took her own life about one week ago.
The library commons is a place where we can discuss hard topics. These topics are common in YA literature for a reason–the struggles of adolescence are real and difficult, and stories –both light and dark–have the power to help kids pull through moments of despair, or have compassion for others facing a difficult time. When we can bring students together on a topic, with experts in the field, like our school counselors, and point kids in the direction of valuable community resources (like NAMI and other suicide prevention resources) we are making a vital difference in the social and emotional well-being of these students. And there is no standardized test for that.