13 Reasons Why: Is it a Perfect Portrayal of Teenager’s Issues or an Unrealistic Idea of Teenage Suicide?

You’ve probably already heard about the latest Netflix TV series called 13 Reasons Why, based on the fictional novel by Jay Asher. For those of you who haven’t watched it, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of a teenage girl’s suicide – a girl named Hannah Baker. She recorded tapes detailing the reasons behind her suicide and why she blames certain people for the decision to end her life. She then gets one of her friends, Tony, to pass these tapes on to every person who is mentioned in it, to ensure that they understand why she ended her own life.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the whole idea of the series. They portray issues that adolescents face very well – issues such as bullying, gossiping, sexual assault, loneliness and the anxiety you experience from being at the centre of negative attention. In fact, 13 Reasons Why has been praised for its successful attempt to address diversity by starring multicultural actors and actresses, and by incorporating LGBTQ issues in their storyline. Bottom line is, the intention behind the series is very honourable and the message behind it is clear: be kind to others always because you never know what they have or are going through. You could save a life.

No wonder viewers can relate to the series so much. It reminds us of those years filled with angst, innocence, and naivety; of all the struggles and fun we had in order to exist, survive, and hopefully grow to become fully-functioning adults. This reflection that I had after watching the whole series hit me with a realisation. What if the fifteen-year-old me was watching the series? What could I possibly be thinking? How would I feel after watching it?

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a fifteen-year-old teenager who is going through a tough time in school. You are bullied; you feel trapped and lonely; you feel like you’ve tried everything you can to make it better, but nothing works. Then you watch the series, and suddenly the idea of suicide becomes a very real option. The series offers a common-sense approach to suicide. It gives you the impression that suicide is an opportunity to have the last laugh, which is unrealistic.  

By deciding to commit suicide, you are choosing an end that is final. You don’t get a resolution after that, as the series suggested in some ways.

After thinking about this, I realised that there are some dangerous flaws in the series. Regardless of its noble purpose, the series could send a completely different message to the teenagers watching the show because it offers the idea of suicide as a possible revenge fantasy. Hannah was bullied, assaulted, and lonely when she was alive, but she has a sudden grasp of power after her suicide. There’s almost this sense that the aftermath of suicide is romanticised in the series, which could give the wrong impression to the teenagers watching the show.  

Not to mention the graphic detail of the suicide and sexual assault that are striking. I understand that this was done with the intention of making the audience feel uncomfortable because in reality, these things happen and they are horrible and tragic. Making these scenes as realistic as possible can move the audience emotionally and allow them to be more aware of the tragic nature of a suicide or sexual assault. However, once again, try to imagine watching these scenes through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old. For more vulnerable viewers, these scenes could leave them feeling distressed or even traumatised, especially for young viewers who are going through similar problems as Hannah.

13 Reasons Why is undeniably a heavy show. Parental guidance and age restrictions are definitely needed, even if they’ve already put trigger warnings in the beginning of each episode.

Further discussions after watching the series should also be held by parents or guardians of its young and vulnerable viewers (for instance, those who suffer from depression or PTSD who can be triggered by the show’s content). I also think that the series lacks the insight to the importance of being alive, an important message of positivity for viewers who may be experiencing bullying or are having suicidal thoughts.

Adolescence is a complex stage of life. It’s a transition from childhood to being an adult, so teenagers have to deal with a lot of new challenges and expectations from the people around them. They are expected to be independent and be responsible for their own actions, while at the same time having to obey their parents’ rules. Not to mention the fact that they’re on a mission to discover themselves, their identity, and their purpose in life. With many changes biologically and socially, this journey of finding themselves will not be easy. It will be an emotional rollercoaster ride with a lot of anger, confusion, anxiety, loneliness, misunderstanding – you name it. This could affect their behaviour to be more rebellious and dramatic. However, this is part of being an adolescent – part of the process of finding their place in the world.

Understanding adolescents’ cognitive development is also essential. Their way of thinking begins to get more complex, developing from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. They begin to think systematically about logical reasoning, can form new ideas, and can consider different point of views. However, the transition occurs over time between 12 to 18 years of age. You can’t just expect them to develop the skill instantly. It requires a lot of process and practice.

Ideally, teenagers should have access to lots of resources, such as education and forms of social support from family and friends to help them develop socially and cognitively. The resources would provide them with the knowledge and opportunity to discuss with those who are older regarding teenage issues. It would help them develop their problem-solving skill, critical thinking, and their decision-making process. They also need to have people who can provide them with emotional support when they fail or are having difficulties. This example is an ideal scenario for a teenager’s life, where they can have a space to grow with resources and support provided.

Unfortunately, teenagers might not always have access to lots of resources, such as education, and emotional and social support which they desperately need from their family and peers. Let’s face it, the education system (especially in Indonesia) haven’t really taken into consideration the importance of mental health. Not to mention the parents’ need to understand these issues to guide their teenage children. As a result, many teenagers end up feeling lost and don’t know where to ask for such guidance, which could make them be more vulnerable to sensitive content like those shown in 13 Reasons Why.

Given these points, regular, open discussions between teenagers and their parents (or other adults) regarding emotional and social issues that adolescents face are important. This helps to raise awareness of these issues, but also in addressing any confusion and improving their way of thinking. Teachers and parents especially also need to be able to support them emotionally and not underestimate their feelings, so that the school and home can be a safe space where they can grow and develop.

Sometimes we forget what being a teenager is like. I can’t stress enough how important it is to show empathy towards youth. It’s easy for us to say, “Oh, come on, grow up!”. Well, they are growing up. At least they’re trying to be grown-ups. We just need to give them a chance.