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13 Thoughts on 13 Reasons Why

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Clay in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why

Recently, I watched the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (based on a book with the same title). The framework for the series is that an adolescent, Hannah Baker, has died by suicide and left behind audio tapes detailing every component that she believes led up to her death. In addition, she has a methodical plan for the specific people who should listen to the tapes, how they should be listened to, and the order in which people hear them. Some people say this is art and entertainment, and therefore, exempt from social responsibility.

Nonetheless, many people will watch this series, which makes it important to view the series critically and to consider its implications. My thoughts aren’t fully formed yet, but I wanted to write something as the series came out without waiting until I had it all sorted out. My feelings and opinions may develop more as I process the material for a longer period of time. However, I’m open and curious about other perspectives.

1. The series is set up as a mystery that quickly pulled me into the story, and I finished the whole series within a few days. While this is a compelling way to reveal a mystery, I believe that it contributes to stigma by painting the picture of a woman who ended her life for the purposes of getting attention from the individuals she believed ruined her life. The tone of her delivery is blaming and feels vengeful. I worry this perpetuates the myth that suicide is typically driven by desire for attention, selfishness, or revenge…which it most certainly is not.

2. There is a scene that is explicitly blaming of one of the few kind (though not perfect) people in the series (Hannah’s friend and love interest, Clay). Hannah’s friend, Tony, tells Clay that Hannah would have been alive if he had acted differently. He later softens his tone, saying it is not Clay’s fault and Hannah is responsible for the choice that she made. Still, the blame message is there in a scene where Hannah tells Clay repeatedly to leave her alone. He reluctantly leaves the room. The show then depicts a parallel universe where the “right” things happened: Clay insists on staying despite Hannah clearly asking him to leave her alone, he turns the conversation around through persistence, Hannah feels loved, and suicide is prevented. In light of the violations of consent elsewhere in the series (including two rape scenes), I was bothered by Clay being painted as having done the wrong thing when he honored Hannah’s wishes to leave her alone.

3. Hannah decides, as her last attempt at help-seeking, to reach out to her school counselor about her suicidal thoughts and being the victim of rape. The counselor, insensitively and against best practice guidelines, implies she may be partially to blame (e.g., asking if she verbally said no to the perpetrator, asking if she had been drinking) and jumps right into telling her that her only choices are to: 1) report the assault or 2) to move on. She leaves the office, and he doesn’t follow-up with her in any way. He doesn’t ask for more details or conduct a suicide risk assessment, and he does not try to reach out to her parents to prevent her from harming herself. Of course, there are some counselors out there who might act in this irresponsible way. However, the vast majority would not. In a show that is viewed by a lot of young people, the depiction of the counselor matters a lot. People are already reluctant to reach out to mental health professionals. I worry people would feel even more discouraged from seeking help after seeing this terrible, judgmental, unethical interaction.

4. The series accurately portrays some of the risk factors for suicide: social isolation, loneliness, and disconnection from others (including in the painful forms of bullying), perceiving herself as a burden (e.g., she describes herself as a “problem” for her parents and especially feels burdensome after accidentally losing some of their money), family conflict (her parents argue about issues including finances), witnessing and then being a victim of sexual assault, and hopelessness about her future (e.g., with regard to college and other plans).

5. I appreciated the series emphasizing how crucial social connections are for health and talking about different types of loneliness – including individuals truly isolated and those who feel “lonely in a crowd.” It seemed to make the point that even apparently popular people (like Zack) can feel lonely. I believe this sends the message that anyone is vulnerable to loneliness, and we shouldn’t assume people are doing well just because they appear that way on the outside.

6. One of the themes of the series is that – at any point – one person listening, reaching out, or doing something differently could have prevented Hannah’s suicide. Ultimately, this is a positive message. Unfortunately, I think it’s lost and distorted because it is used to blame people for their failures to save Hannah rather than demonstrating that one person could have made a difference and changed the story to a hopeful one. If the counselor or one of her parents had connected with Hannah and supported her in seeking help for her struggles, this point would have been much more persuasive. Instead, the story feels more demoralizing than inspiring to me.

7. Hannah’s death scene is a graphic depiction of her cutting her wrists with razor blades in a bathtub. In a documentary-type episode made about the series, they said that it was to show the painful and hard-to-look-at nature of suicide. To me, it feels like a choice to make a dramatic, visually startling conclusion to the story rather than to deliver a lesson. It makes sense – this is a series meant to be watched and to get people glued to their screens not a PSA. It’s possible that an individual who feels suicidal might see that and be afraid; however, it’s also quite plausible that an individual feeling suicidal might mistakenly view it as an end to all of Hannah’s emotional pain and problems. Anecdotally, there are cases of suicidal individuals watching scenes of suicide building up to taking their own life.

8. There are warnings in the beginnings of episodes where there are graphic scenes (e.g., sexual assault, suicidal behavior). It would have been helpful if the episodes had information about resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, embedded in them too. It would be a simple way to reach a lot of people. Again, the series created a separate short documentary-like episode with mental health professionals and resources in it. However, it appears completely separately from the series (rather than as the 14th episode, for example). It would reach more people if it was connected to the full series.

9. The pain Hannah’s parents experience after her death is excruciating. I feel this is one of the most realistic aspects of the series. It shows their horror, their confusion, their regret, and their desire to prevent other suicides from occurring. In the documentary afterwards, they suggest that this might show individuals who feel suicidal about the pain that others would experience if they died. I think this may be the case for some, but for certain individuals, tragically, they might imagine that people wouldn’t feel the same way about their death. That’s the cruelty of perceiving oneself as a burden – people struggling with mental health problems may not see how the world is better with them in it.

10. Related to the second point, several characters clearly violate Hannah. Marcus and Bruce grab her, Tyler and Justin take and share revealing pictures without permission, and Bryce rapes her. When Hannah and Clay are starting to kiss, Clay asks, “Is this okay?” I really liked this scene because it shows how directly asking about consent is natural and enhances, rather than ruins, the moment. It also shows a welcome contrast in that Clay genuinely respects and cares about her feelings and perspective. Sadly, this positive point gets diminished when the scene turns into Hannah yelling for him to “get the hell out” and the suggestion that if he had only ignored her wishes, he would have saved her life (as described above).

11. From one perspective, it seems like a point of the series is to teach bullies that their actions can lead to someone dying by suicide. However, most people who are bullied do not die by suicide – people are often remarkably resilient in the face of great adversity. It’s important that people who are on the receiving end of bullying know that. Secondly, most of the people on Hannah’s tapes are more concerned about protecting their own secrets (e.g., that Courtney is attracted to women, that Justin allowed Bryce to rape Jessica, that Ryan published Hannah’s poem without her permission) than how they hurt Hannah. If the message is supposed to be an anti-bullying one, I don’t think it really connects with bullying people in the audience. I guess that it would resonate more with people on the receiving end of bullying who feel a sense of hopelessness about the bullies having any potential for empathy and a sense that there is no help available to them.

12. On two occasions, two adults (the counselor and the communications teacher) state that the warning signs for suicide include withdrawing from friends and family, changes in appearance, and trouble in group projects. This was a great opportunity to share the real warning signs for suicide, but unfortunately, only the first one really maps onto the list.

13. A lighthearted, sweet aspect of the series is that Clay is different from his peers in that he cares relatively less about what other people think of him. He still cares what people, including Hannah, think of him to some extent, but he doesn’t try as hard as his peers to be something he’s not. He feels nervous around Hannah, but doesn’t ever really pretend to be someone else. He doesn’t let other people’s opinions make him feel bad about himself. Again, Clay’s not perfect (he says some mean things to Hannah and looks at a revealing picture that Tyler took without consent).

But, overall, he’s smart, sensitive, caring, a good student, interested in the world beyond the walls of his school, helps others, takes reasonable caution in his decision-making, and likes geek stuff like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. During one exchange, Hannah says to Clay, “Wow. You’re an actual nerd. There’s courage in that.” Most of the other characters in the series view themselves and their worth in terms of what their peers think of them. This generally rings true with regard to this developmental period in adolescence. It’s refreshing to see someone who has some self-acceptance and a sense of what’s right in the midst of all of the tragedy.

You can also listen to the Jedi Counsel first podcast episode on this series and our second episode. If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out. There is hope and help is available at the suicide prevention lifeline.

Dr. Kathryn Gordon is an Associate Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. Her research focuses on disordered eating and suicidal behavior. She co-hosts a website and podcast exploring mental health in fictional characters called Jedi Counsel.

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Have You Heard the “Suicide Prevention Anthem 1-800-273-8255”

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MTV – VMAs

National Suicide Prevention Month begins on September 1st, and MTV officially kicked off the awareness month with a performance of “1-800-273-8255” by Logic along with Khalid and Alessia Cara at the VMAs. The song’s title just happens to be the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and the performance also included a group of suicide attempt survivors who came on stage wearing shirts with the number to the suicide helpline.

The song begins from the perspective of someone who wants to die and feels there is no one there to care about what happens to them. The opening hook for the song states, “I don’t want to be alive, I just want to die today, I just want to die.” Some may take an issue with the beginning of the song, but it can not be understated the importance of identifying those feelings in order to seek help.

A recent study which included 32 children’s hospital across the United States revealed an alarming increase in self-harm and suicidality in children and teens ranges from ages 5 to 17 over the past decade. Also, the School of Social Work and Social Care at the University of Birmingham released a recent study stating, “Children and young people under-25 who become victims of cyberbullying are more than twice as likely to enact self-harm and attempt suicide than non-victims.”

The second hook starts with “I want you to be alive, You don’t gotta die today, You don’t gotta die.” The song moves from a place of darkness to a place of support. When someone expresses suicidal thoughts, it is critical to not dismiss their feelings or minimize the weight of the issues preventing them from wanting to live. The Center for Disease control list death by suicide as the number 1 cause of death in the 15-19 age group. According to the National Data on Campus Suicides, “1 in 12 college students have written down a suicide plan as a result of stresses related to school, work, relationships, social life, and still developing as a young adult.”

John Draper, Director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, in an interview talked about the impact the song is already having. Draper said: “The impact has been pretty extraordinary. On the day the song was released, we had the second-highest call volume in the history of our service. Overall, calls to the hotline are up roughly 33% from this time last year.” via CNN

“I finally want to be alive, I don’t want to die today, I don’t want to die” are the lyrics and the tone in which the songs end. Then, it leads into an incredibly woke statement by Logic, and here is a sample:

“I am here to fight for your equality because I believe that we are all born equal, but we are not treated equally at that is why we must fight!” – Logic VMAs

The trend for suicide deaths is on an upward climb. A 2015 study by the Center for Disease Control state there were twice as many suicides than homicides in the United States. It’s time we end the stigma and myths surrounding suicide attempt survivors “doing it for the attention.” Suicidal thoughts may be an ongoing struggle instead of a one-off event to prevent. In this case, we need to arm loved ones and at risk individuals with information as well as tools and resource to manage their mental health status.

Suicide Warning Signs

Another useful resource is the Crisis Text Line in which users can send a text to a trained counselor and typically receive a response within 5 minutes. Texters can begin by texting “START to 741741” to get connected.

Mental Health providers and practitioners are always looking for ways to connect and reach those most at risk for suicidal and self-harming behaviors, and pop culture often has a direct connection to those who are the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, a recent study identified a link between 13 Reasons Why and suicidal thoughts in which it found “queries about suicide and how to commit suicide spiked in the show’s wake.”

However, unlike Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why“, this song is already showing that it will have the opposite effect by increasing queries and online searches about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. If you have not seen this powerful VMA performance, I urge you to check it out.

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What “Bachelor in Paradise” Can Teach Us About Working With Young Black Men

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A young Black man sitting on a couch, talking to a TV show host

We need to look to the history of Black men in the United States in order to understand the seriousness of what happened to DeMario Jackson.

This season, the “Bachelor” franchise has taken on the topic of race relations in a fairly head-on fashion for mainstream television. For years, the series has been (aptly) criticized for featuring primarily White contestants.

After a season in which a Black woman was cast for the first time as the “Bachelorette,” the franchise’s summer follow-up series, “Bachelor in Paradise,” included several Black men and women in search of love. But let’s hone in on the story one man in particular, Demario Jackson.

Mr. Jackson, a Black man, joined the Mexico-based “Bachelor in Paradise” cast in hopes of finding a partner. As the television show is known for its sexual antics and hookup culture, it was no surprise when Mr. Jackson quickly became involved with Corinne Olympios, a White woman. The two met, flirted and over the course of a day of drinking, became sexually intimate.

All of this took place in public, with cameras rolling and with cast-mates walking by from time to time. The day after this incident, producers stopped the show as a third party had filed a complaint about Mr. Jackson’s behavior with Ms. Olympios vis-à-vis alcohol consumption and consent to sexual activities.

Ms. Olympios claimed that she did not remember any of the night due to her heavy drinking, but later, for a time, claimed that she was a victim of sexual assault (and had to endure the pain of “slut shaming” as well). Of the event, Mr. Jackson has stated “It was 100-percent consensual. She hopped in my arms, she pulled me into the pool…I think people wanted it to be something different. They wanted the angry Black guy and this little, innocent White girl. But it wasn’t.”

In the end, an external investigation (paid for by Warner Brothers) determined that no wrongdoing took place, and Mr. Jackson’s name was cleared. Unfortunately, this did not occur before the press reported on the incident in some very racially charged and unfair ways – but ways that are not unfamiliar to the Black community. So egregious was the coverage, that at least two of the White female contestants from “Bachelor in Paradise” decided to step up and defend Mr. Jackson’s honor, a refreshing change.

One of the silver linings of Mr. Jackson’s suffering is that our society has the opportunity to revisit longstanding stereotypes about the aggressiveness and/or sexuality of young Black men, especially as it relates to White women.

Helping professionals need to know that our country has a long and shameful history of portraying young Black men as sexual predators and/or perpetrators. Starting in the late 1900s, our country saw a rise racial tension that correlated with the number of lynchings of Black men.

In fact, between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 reported lynchings, 72.7 percent of which involved Black men. It is widely understood that these race-based lynchings were instigated by White people who felt the need to protect White women from Black men. This presumption has followed us to the present day, where many people believe that Black men rape White women more than White men do, something that has been shown to be false.

We must remember that the young Black men that we work with as social workers live with the spectre of history, and are often warned about interacting with White women during “the talk” with their parents. That is, the talk about what it is to live as a young Black man in the United States in an age where racism is alive and well.

Perhaps a father would tell the tale of Florida’s Rosewood massacre, in which many Black men died as a result of a White woman claiming that a Black man had assaulted her. Or perhaps a Black father may tell his son the story of 14 year-old Emmett Till, a young Black man accused of whistling at and making physical advances to a White woman in a candy store. Mr. Till was murdered as a result of his alleged actions – even though decades later, his accuser has admitted to making up the most damning part of her court testimony. The media treatment of DeMario Jackson felt no different to me than what Emmett Till faced.

So, how can we act on this as helping professionals working with young Black men? We are tasked with seeking social justice, but in the case of young Black men, we must also look inside ourselves for ways to promote racial justice. We must challenge ourselves to be aware of damaging stereotypes that may be held about young Black clients.

As helping professionals, we must be committed to reflective practice and be on the lookout for these stereotypes within ourselves as well as among others involved with the clients we work with. We must work to prevent such stereotypes from impacting the lives of the young Black men in schools, universities, community organizations and both the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

We need to do this anti-racism work as the social work profession has been accused of failing Black men many times before. For example, Dr. Waldo Johnson, Jr. addresses this failure in his book Social work with African American males: Health, mental health and social policy. In this text,

Dr. Johnson talks about how Black men suffer from being stereotyped as reckless (at best) and characterized as having a lifelong disregard for or commitment to society in general. While most Black men do not fit into this stereotype, it persists nonetheless, often as a result of media images.

In the post-Charlottesville era, it is vital for social workers – especially White social workers – to take a stand against the stereotyping of young Black men. This is especially important work to engage in given what we know about how White social workers may hold negative racial biases as a result of living in a society defined by White supremacy. It is time to stand up for racial justice in all of the settings we work in, let’s let DeMario Jackson’s ordeal make a difference for young Black men in the United States.

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Need to Have Some Fun: How to Throw a Perfect Game of Thrones Party

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Even though Winter is coming, the hit television series Game of Thrones still provides an awesome party theme. We all work hard and need to get away from the pressures of our everyday work load. Whether it’s a birthday or friendly get-together, here’s how to throw the perfect Game of Thrones party.

Place Every Partygoer in a House

  • No Game of Thrones party is complete without some of the most well-known houses in attendance. Assign a house to every party attendant. Think carefully and try to match people to the houses that best suit them. However, be careful because some people might not take too kindly to being assigned certain houses such as Lannister or Florent.

Create Some Awesome Invitations

  • Once assigning everyone a house, it’s time to create the invitations. Find a suitable medieval font online, type and print your invitations, then use some black tea bags (soaked in warm water) to give them an aged look. Finally, fold your invitations in order to seal them. Unfortunately, not everyone has hot wax and a signet ring available to complete the final step,  but don’t worry because stickers or printed paper with a house seal on them will work just as well.

The Perfect Feast

  • Normal party food is a huge no-no when it comes to throwing a Game of Thrones party. Instead, you should try your hardest to provide food that would be eaten in medieval times. This doesn’t mean you should look for some disgusting medieval dishes because the food still needs to be tasty. Games of Thrones party staples include hot pies and sausages; however, if you’re stuck for ideas, there are plenty of Game of Thrones recipe guides available both online and in book form for your reference.

Create A Game of Thrones Playlist

  • Instead of creating a playlist filled with the latest big hits and party tunes, you should create a Game of Thrones playlist. Obviously, the playlist must include the official Game of Thrones theme song, but it should also include various pieces of medieval-style music.

Decorate Your House

  • You can have so much fun decorating your house for a Game of Thrones theme party. Hang banners from the walls or use them as placemats or coasters. Printing out the official maps or making your own bunting are other good ideas.

Play Some Suitable Games

  • There are plenty of games that you can play when throwing a Game of Thrones party. A Game of Thrones quiz is a great idea – maybe Game of Thrones bingo? You could also purchase official Games of Thrones playing cards and board games.

Enjoy The Party

Follow all of this advice, and you can be assured that your Game of Thrones party will turn out perfectly. Enjoy the party!

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