Suicide prevention is a serious topic, certainly nothing to joke about or romanticize. Yet, the recent Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, portrays the disturbing life and untimely end of life of a high school student, arguably in just such a romanticized manner. In the show, the protagonist justifies her suicide by blaming others, pointing to various people in her life who have wronged her. The show has been watched—even binge watched—by many teens in our community, which is disturbing. If students feel they must watch it, school administrators recommend that parents and their children watch the show together, responsibly, and, more importantly, discuss the concepts described in the series.
Yeshivot throughout the area have sent out warning letters to parents of students who could potentially be watching this series. Overall, the message conveyed by these educators is resoundingly clear: While there are relevant themes worth discussing, there are also many elements of the series that go directly against recommendations of mental health practitioners and can be damaging to the impressionable minds of adolescents. With May being Mental Health Month, it is important to examine the show in detail and be alert for potentially problematic scenes, themes and messages. Further, therapists have stated it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to look within and beyond to see if someone in our community is struggling.
With a TV-MA rating, the show has been deemed not «developmentally appropriate» for the middle school age group, according to an email from SAR Middle School, which advised that middle schoolers steer clear of the show. That said, an email to SAR High School students acknowledged that the many points raised are relevant to teenagers, including that the various factors that caused this teenager to end her life may mimic our very own realities. All local schools recommend, however, that the show be watched—or at least discussed—in the presence of an adult.
It’s important to note that 13 Reasons Why is a work of fiction, and while it raises certain legitimate issues that are important to discuss, it also makes it seem like suicide is an easy way out. Further, while the series depicts an unwillingness to help by people in the protagonist’s life, there are plenty of people to whom those who are truly suffering can turn.
New Jersey mother Eta Levenson lost her 28-year-old son, Eric, to suicide over a year ago. Today, she raises awareness about mental illness in the hope of preventing this result in others’ lives. When her son was 14, he manifested signs of mental illness, which “caught me completely off guard,” she told The Jewish Link. Through his 14 years of suffering, “he looked at death as an option always on the table for him,” and was successful in his final attempt. She urges parents and teens to converse around the series, especially acknowledging that “it’s a really bad message to send out to kids who are struggling without any alternative [that] ‘you’re going to be sorry when I’m gone.’” Needless to say, as a parent who witnessed signs of her son suffering during his teenage years, she notes that it’s not always possible to watch a child’s every move, particularly exposure to media such as 13 Reasons Why. Without an outlet for children to discuss their feelings, it is dangerous for children. She repeats the urging of mental health professionals who say the series was presented as a “one-sided view without context,” making teens “[unable] to process what they’re watching,” and considers Netflix «irresponsible ... to present it in this way.” Netflix did not respond for comment after multiple inquiries.
Most importantly, Levenson says that the danger of this series is that “teens are not thinking about [suicide and] they’re so impulsive.” Rash decisions could send these youths to untimely ends, a fact that she believes Netflix is encouraging through its depiction of how the show’s protagonist killed herself and the tragic signs that led her to do so.
Efrem Epstein, founder of Elijah’s Journey, an organization that focuses on suicide prevention within the Jewish community, reinforces the importance of teens not bottling up their anger. “The most important thing that people should know is where to go if they or someone they know needs help,» he stressed. He also mentioned that mental health professionals delicately address the topic of suicide using the term «died by suicide,» not «commited suicide,» and says that the means of suicide is not to be discussed—which is why 13 Reasons Why is also so disturbing.
Dr. Bin Goldman, a licensed clinical psychologist and the visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, worries about the show’s ramifications on copycat suicides, and how suicide is handled in the aftermath. Is the person to be memorialized? «Whether or not, any acknowledgment is glorifying it or publicizing it—and that can lead to more suicide,» he said. That’s why when celebrities commit suicide, there’s often a spike in suicides across the country. He worries about the message the series is sending, expressing that Netflix «brings up suicide dangerously,» especially when the adults in the relationship believe there’s nothing they can do and that talking about the teen’s feelings will only worsen the situation. «If someone comes up to them and [says] they are going to harm themselves, [the adult] should say something. They should not let the person be by themselves. People can turn to each other and [utilize] hotlines” specifically equipped to deal with these issues.
Dr. Goldman also showed concern for the adult’s role in the life of the protagonist. The role of adults, he said, is «played down.» It’s as if «the adults are the clueless ones» and cannot help. While adolescents likely turn to their peers rather than to adults, they should also recognize the importance of adults in helping stop what may happen, especially the resources of mental health professionals at school.
Rabbi Mordechai Glick, a licensed psychologist living in Teaneck, sees the series as an “opening” for a discussion, regardless of whether the adolescent brings up the topic or not. He encourages parents to start the dialogue and to fully delve into the topic. It’s important for parents to use this time of discussion to be supportive and not contradictory. This opens up a bond between parent and child, and should be done on a regular basis to keep the lines of communication open. “Emphasize the love you feel for them and tell them that you always want them to discuss with you things that are bothering them even if it is about things they are angry at you for,” he says. “Again reassure them that you will really try to listen and understand them and try to resolve the issues. Then slowly and carefully emphasize that they be sharing with you whenever something is bothering them about anything (boys, girls, sex, possibly birth control, drugs etc.) about themselves, or about life. Talk to them, even if it is difficult to speak about certain topics—force yourself—it is very important for your child’s (and your) well-being.”
Sean Herzfeld, a Westchester Hebrew High School ‘17 graduate, agrees, saying, “While the show glorifies suicide, it opens an important dialogue that for some has never been discussed before. Having many friends who’ve watched it, I’ve been able to discuss the topic of depression, suicide and bullying when those might have been more ‘taboo’ when the show was released. While I acknowledge the negative aspects of the show, I appreciate all the positive that has come from [it].”
Overall, feelings are mixed—the series is both detrimental and helpful, albeit tragically real. Elana Sandler, a public health social worker and blogger at Psychology Today, says that the series has had great support since it has opened up conversation on very difficult topics, and «it is a more accurate depiction of life as a teen today than they would otherwise be able to access.» And that means the series has potential for good. On the other hand, she urges, the «glamorous presentation of suicide may influence teens to think about it as a way to get attention or revenge.» Without discussion of mental illness or how to seek treatment, including when the show’s protagonist herself sought help and was dismissed, the series does not emphasize the importance of the positive impact contact with an adult may have.
The JED Foundation, a nonprofit NY organization that aims to protect the emotional health of, and prevent suicide for, the nation’s teens and young adults, has come up with its own talking points for adults to bring home to their children. Here are 13 of them:
The fictional story is intended to be a cautionary tale.
While teens may identify with some of the characters, there are healthy ways to cope with mental distress.
Don’t ignore the importance of the adults in your life who are here to listen and help.
Suicide is not an appropriate response to adversity. Most people do seek help, and when they do, live long, healthy lives.
There’s nothing heroic about suicide. It is perceived as a tragedy.
Treatment can help and works, so don’t undermine its potential.
Suicide affects everyone, not just the person who died by it. Everyone can do something to help if they see or hear warning signs if someone is at risk.
An open discussion about suicide will not encourage it. If you’re concerned, don’t shy away from having a conversation with those who may be considering it.
Don’t judge someone who feels this way. Be understanding and caring. Offer to be supportive.
The guidance counselor in the series did not behave appropriately. In reality, school counselors are professionals and trustworthy sources of help. If you have a poor experience with one, immediately turn to other means of support.
Don’t give up; there will always be someone there who can help you. If someone tells you about their suicidal tendencies, take it seriously.
Addressing the question of Dr. Goldman earlier, memorializing someone who died by suicide is not a recommended practice, nor is taking selfies in front of a memorial. It’s an insult, not an honor.
Survivors are not at fault, and there are resources and support groups to turn to if you become a suicide loss survivor.
For more information or for anyone wishing to speak with someone regarding the Jewish response to suicide prevention, please visit Elijah’s Journey at http://www.elijahsjourney.net or call Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Glick at 201-983-1532.
By Tamar Weinberg