“13 Reasons Why” This series is not appropriate to show in class

Over the past few weeks, I read a lot of different articles and posts regarding the series. I also had long talks with psychologists, educators, and social workers. It is a constant debate whether to show the series in class. As a psychologist, a bully teacher, and a mom, I would refrain from sharing this series in class and urge doing research on the topic before attempting to use this series as an example.

I would be reluctant to show the drama series for many reasons. I have read about stars recommending the show, and I plead you to think heavily about listening to an actor about their recommendation, especially if they were on the show. It angers me that stars are taking a stance, as they do not work in schools, with at-risk youth, or even have the degree to assess the damage that can be done. The series romanticizes revenge suicide and how others rob the main character, Hannah, from her life. It frustrates me that anyone would depict this as reality and recommend it to be viewed in a classroom setting. However, without discrediting the entire show, some aspects of the show are real: the sex, drama, bullying, cyberbullying, drugs, pressure to fit in, sexual assault, abuse, relationship issues, friendship struggles, and family drama. All those I can stand behind, and agree that they are pretty true to a high school experience. I work with teens and I hear the stories that resemble Hannah’s life. I hear about their stress as well as concerns about surviving high school or even middle school. A lot of the issues from the show match up to some teens’ concerns. So, that part of the show is relatable, but the way they portray suicide and mental illness is fictional.

The show is meant to evoke an emotional reaction, it is directed to create that shock factor. In the show, they create an element of suspense, “who harmed Hannah enough…that she took her own life.” This draws attention to revenge suicide and how others are blamed for someone committing suicide. In real life, there would never be the opportunity to to have an individual’s personal story shared and to have their friends and enemies hear their voice as they wanted it to be heard. Their life would have already been taken and they would no longer have a voice. Furthermore, in the series the main character Clay, listens to the tapes and sees Hannah go through bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, as though he was there in that moment. This does not happen regardless of how many tapes left behind, the person listening or reading the suicide letter will interpret the situation as their own. The individual’s voice gets lost and all that is left is guilt, grief, and despair. When someone takes their life, their voice is silenced. The power given to the ghost of Hannah was unrealistic.

The show does not share enough scenes or dialogue over Hannah’s depression. In some scenes, she seems sad, distant, and aloof. However, she still gets invited to the parties, kids kindly chant her name when she enters a room. She has a lot of boys’ attention, and keeps seeking out those popular boys that mistreat her. She writes a letter of despair to one of the most popular boys to prove a twisted point in her mind that he is just like all the rest of them. These are things that can all be true, but what we don’t see enough, is her pain, her suicide ideation, her depression.

The way the blame is placed on the show is frightening. It was everyone’s fault why her life sucked. Even Clay, the shy nerdy kid, lived with the guilt of not telling her that he loved her in time. They plot it as if only he would have told her he loved her, she would have been alive. That is some heavy stuff to carry as a teen, and to even process.

With the kids I work with, many have made the mistake of dating the wrong guy. From then on, vicious rumors spread leaving them with a reputation of being “easy”. Those rumors can ruin a person, they can follow a girl throughout high school, but they also can be squashed and addressed. The show does not address any positive strategies or ways to help our teens. I realize that it is not the intent, but I want to share how this series is one-sided. I agree that this topic needs to be addressed in our society. Kids often think of suicide and harming themselves, but that show alone won’t save a life. However, as parents and educators let’s use this show to talk about the difference between a drama series and real life.

In closing, I would like to share that my main concern with showing this series in school, is provoking students that need help. Children are influenced by media. Do you want to know how many burn books or gossip girl feeds I have encountered in my career working in schools? Let’s de-romanticize suicide and talk about what we can do to help. Use this series to educate and empower yourself to make a difference.

Until Next Time,

Kortney Peagram, Ph.D
Owner and CEO Bulldog Solution, Inc.
Adjunct Professor The Chicago School of Professional Psychology