Combatting The Parental Stereotype in '13 Reasons Why'
By Meryl Cassidy
Thirteen Reasons Why (13RW) is a Netflix series adaptation of the book of the same name by Jay Asher. The series revolves around a high school student named Clay, who receives a series of tapes recorded by his recently deceased classmate and crush, Hannah Baker, which are about the 13 reasons why she died by suicide. Since its release on March 31st, it has grown in popularity among primarily middle school and high school students.
The series has prompted a strong negative reaction among many experts in the field of suicide prevention. Concerns center around the potential for young viewers to identify with Hannah and see suicide as a valid way to cope with life's challenges. Experts emphasize that this sends a dangerous message and that, in fact, suicide is not a common response to adversity and that most people with suicidal thoughts reach out for help (which should be encouraged) and that help is effective and available. (There are many other problems with the series summarized here.)
While I share many of the concerns expressed by others in the field, my biggest issue with 13RW is its handling of the role of adults generally and parents specifically in the lives of their children. There is a familiar trope in the series framing all adults as useless. Hannah's parents, although seemingly caring and supportive, are superfluous at best. This is not only offensive to me as a parent of 2 young adults, but I would argue it's inaccurate and dangerous.
I understand that the idea that adults are useless is a familiar trope used in many shows that revolve around teenagers, preteens, or younger children. Usually this is just a plot necessity especially on comedy shows (think 'Fairly Odd Parents'). This trope often gives the impression that only teens or younger kids are capable of 'saving the world' - or, that teens have an inner, secret life that is too profound for adults to understand. The problem with this is that it implies there's no point in telling adults about your problems because they'd either disbelieve you or be useless to help. This is a particularly dangerous message to send to teens that may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. This message is downright terrifying and disempowering for concerned adults with teenaged children in their care.
At Response Crisis Center, we work on our hotlines, online, and in the community to prevent suicide, to provide intervention services when suicidal thoughts emerge, and to do postvention work after a tragedy occurs. Much of our work involves providing education and guidance on recognizing risk factors and warning signs and in training and empowering people to know how to get involved and how to intervene. Often, what is required is the courage to ask our children the tough questions, and then to be fully present in the moment and LISTEN. We recognize that it takes many people in a community who are ready, willing and able to get involved-and that persons at risk of suicide also need to know that help is available and how to access that help. These are the messages we want to emphasize and we want to equip young people, their parents and other youth-involved adults with the tools necessary to get involved. If there is a silver lining to the controversy created by the series 13RW, it may be in our efforts to counter the messages in the series with more accurate, empowering messages.