Recognizing Realities in Streaming Fiction

The binge-worthy Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why has been a source of controversy since it began streaming in March. Depicting the story of a high school student that kills herself and leaves behind cassette tapes she recorded identifying the people in her life she blames for her suicide, the show continues to receive its share of both ridicule and praise from fans, critics, and mental health professionals.

As AWARE® facilitators and educators, it is important for us to understand the experiences of our workshop participants and the teens in our lives as we strive to empower them to build healthy friendships and relationships. Though the show has received criticism for glamorizing suicide and its failure to appropriately address mental illness, other aspects of teens’ live that it realistically captures provide important insights that we as educators should be attuned to.

  • Technology Use: 13 Reasons Why effectively shows how tethered to technology teens are in a way that adults might mistakenly trivialize. As their primary method of communication, technology allows teens to connect with their peers 24/7, bringing social dynamics from school into other spaces. The show capture show teens no longer get a reprieve from bullying once the school day ends as well as the psychological and emotional stress caused by cyberbullying. Technology is also a means for an abuser to control their partner, but it maybe difficult for teens to determine when that communication has crossed a line and label it technology abuse.
  • Difficulty Communicating Emotions: The inability of many of the show’s characters to recognize and verbalize their emotions is common for teens. In our AWARE® Training: Navigating Tough Conversations with Teens, we discuss the importance of validating emotions by acknowledging how a teen is feeling, as well as giving them the opportunity to elaborate by asking questions that support understanding rather than conveying judgement.
  • Failing to Recognize Available Resources: It is also common for teens who need help to not know how to ask for it nor recognize the resources that are available to them. This is especially true for teens who have experienced trauma or dating abuse that may feel depressed, isolated, or anxious. As is highlighted in the support systems section of AWARE® workshop debrief discussions, it’s important for teens to be able to identify trusted adults in their own lives they would turn to for help. Feeling close to just one adult contributes to resiliency.

For additional resources on supporting the emotional health and well-being of teens and young adults, visit the JED Foundation’s Mental Health Resource Center.

For tips on engaging teens and young adults in a conversation about youth suicide as it relates to the series, download the 13 Reasons Why Talking Points developed by JED and SAFE.

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