What Psychologists Wish Parents Knew About the Hit Show “13 Reasons Why”

The drama has gotten rave reviews, but is it too dark and disturbing for teens? Here’s what experts say parents can—and should—be doing.

13 Reasons Why on NetflixPhoto: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

Here’s What Psychologists Really Think of “13 Reasons Why”

Based on the 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is great entertainment, according to Variety—and if the media attention it has drawn and the overwhelmingly positive reviews are any indication. Like the book, the 13-episode series targets teens as its core intended audience. However, there are many who believe that 13 Reasons Why may not be appropriate viewing for teens (which is, in fact, reflected in its TV-MA rating), and the series has become a magnet for controversy because of its unflinching depiction of mature content, especially teen suicide and bullying.

The premise of 13 Reasons is that a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, has killed herself following a series of events that crushed her desire to live, leaving behind a box of 13 audio cassette tapes, each one addressed to a particular person on whom she blames her suicide. While it is widely acknowledged that the series strongly advocates for communication, kindness, and the importance of asking for help when you need it, some experts on mental health and adolescents express reservations.

In particular, some experts are troubled by the focus on blaming others for Hannah’s tragic actions, which may come at the expense of exploring the role that depression may have played. While the series may be a touchstone for conversations between parents and teens about important issues like bullying, isolation, and depression, the issues are complex and may be confusing both for parents and impressionable youth. Experts take issue with the fact that when Hannah asked for help from her guidance counsellor, he failed to come through for her.

Perhaps most troubling is the very real risk of “suicidal contagion,” the phenomenon whereby suicidal acts appear to be “contagious,” spreading within families, groups of friends, schools, entire communities, and even as a result of media coverage of a celebrity suicide (for example, Marilyn Monroe). Although the role that a work of fiction can play in this context remains unverified as a scientific matter, it is no less worrisome in the wake of Netflix’s release of 13 Reasons.

School districts across the country have sent letters to parents advising them to be mindful of the mature content contained in 13 Reasons. The letter sent by the Byram Hills Central School District in Armonk, New York, points out that 13 Reasons is described as a “disturbing book adaptation” and assures parents that “all faculty and staff have been alerted…and are asked to remain attentive to student conversations, reporting anything that they might hear and that “guidance counsellors, support staff, and administrators are prepared to meet with students and their parents, if necessary.”

Not all mental health experts are up in arms. Adolescent psychiatrist Carla Polcyn, MD, who has offices in Armonk as well as Mt. Kisco, New York, sees 13 Reasons in a positive light in that “it opens so many doors for meaningful conversation between parents and teens about important topics that might otherwise go unexplored, including depression, bullying, and self-harm,” she says. Dr. Polcyn recommends that parents watch 13 Reasons “either with or in parallel with their teens—ages 16 and above only—and then hold discussions to share feelings and reactions to each episode.” One of Dr. Polcyn’s patients expressed to her that 13 Reasons made him think about how he can be “nicer and kinder to my fellow students and my own friends.” Polcyn pointed out to him (and suggests that parents talk to their teens about) how it’s important it is not just to be kind but also to offer real support to friends without judgment.”

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