As an educator at an organization that deals largely with the crimes of rape and sexual assault, I’ve been hearing a lot from the students I come into contact with about the new-ish Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. For those of you who have not seen it here’s a little synopsis (spoilers ahead):
A high school student, Clay Jensen, comes home from school one day to find a mysterious package; inside it, he finds 13 cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, his classmate and potential love interest, who took her own life two weeks prior. In each tape, Hannah tells, in her own voice, the thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life, each one revolving around an incident with a fellow classmate or adult in her life. In listening, Clay bears witness to Hannah’s pain, to the crimes she suffered at the hands of fellow students, and to the final, painful-to-watch session with their school guidance counselor where she decided to give life “one last try” – and made the final decision that hers was not worth living.
It is a well-made series. It is evocative, compelling… and it is heart breaking.
It is also a nationwide phenomenon with children as young as 5th grade viewing it, in my own experience.
“But it starts the conversations about bullying and teenage suicide!” “But it romanticizes the suicide of a young girl!” The arguments for and against the show rage on and on amidst rumors that a second season is in the works.
But perhaps we are missing the point amidst all this arguing about whether or not it’s appropriate for children and teens to watch it. Perhaps we should be discussing how to talk responsibly to our children and teens about these issues, regardless of whether we permit our youngest members of society to view the series. Perhaps we need to reframe the way we look at and talk about bullying and consent and sexual assault and – maybe most importantly – how to ask for help when help is needed.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. As I previously mentioned, I am an educator. So while I cannot claim to be a mental health expert, I can say, as a person concerned with the well-being of all, especially our youth, that if we hold off on having these conversations with our children and teens, we run the risk of waiting too long. If we hold off, we run the risk of our silence telling them that these are issues they need to deal with on their own.
Which is why at NOVA, we encourage parents to discuss consent with their children at a young age through instruction about body boundaries. We have programs that are not only about anti-bullying, but which also build empathy for victims and teach children to be concerned and active upstanders. We teach children and teens that if they are hurt on purpose, if they are victimized in any way, that it is never their fault. We teach them to reach out. We teach them to ask for help. We teach them to tell someone when they are hurt until someone believes them. We tell them who we are as an organization and that we are here for them.
Not every child lives in a county that has an organization like NOVA. But what every child does have is at least one adult who cares for their well-being. A parent or guardian, a big brother or sister, an aunt or an uncle, a neighbor, a doctor or nurse, and so on. School-aged children have teachers, coaches, principals, guidance counselors and school psychologists, school nurses, babysitters, and so on. That person may look different to each child, but nevertheless, we – as a community – need to talk to them about these sorts of issues.
And, we need to listen too. We need to ask them if they have watched or heard about this show. What do they think? Ask if what were the points where someone could have intervened in Hannah Baker’s struggle – provoke their critical thinking skills. Ask them what their understanding of consent is. Who are their trusted adults whom they can go to if they are hurt? Let the child or teen lead the conversation, listen, and then fill in the education pieces as needed.
Because the truth is, people are hurt on purpose every day. Some people hurt themselves. Some people do take their own lives – and sometimes those people are teenagers, like Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why. If more help is needed, know that there are resources available. A simple google search results in an overflow of viewing tools and precautionary tips meant to aid in responsible viewing of the show and follow-up discussions that are even more in-depth than those discussed here in this blog.