Reasons to talk about ‘13 Reasons Why’
The controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is hard to watch. It contains graphic depictions of teenage rape and suicide. You can credibly debate whether this sort of teen-targeted television trauma is really what our society needs at this point. But the fact is, it was made. It was released on Netflix at the end of March. It became wildly, internationally, popular overnight. From Dubai to Dublin, Hawaii to Hamilton.
In case you’re not plugged in, “13 Reasons Why” is a fictional drama, drawn from a young adult novel, about a teen girl who dies by suicide. She leaves behind 13 audio tapes for friends and acquaintances, explaining to each what role he or she had in the protagonist’s decision to end her own life. As you can imagine, it’s not pretty.
But kids are drawn to it. They relate. By the thousands, they report some of the circumstances – sexual assault, bullying, thoughts of suicide – are harsh realities in their lives, or the lives of their colleagues.
The uproar spurred an Ontario group called School Mental Health Assist to issue a message about the show to school boards across the province. That message led to several boards developing specific positions and guidelines to deal with the show and its fallout. One public board directed the show would not be used as a teaching tool, and educators would not raise it in the classroom, but would respond constructively if the subject came up. The Catholic board adopted a similar position, but while the public board put a notice on its website to communicate with parents, the separate board communicated specifically with educators.
Both approaches are reasonable. Some might wonder why not initiate classroom discussions about the show specifically, but mental health experts have reported, anecdotally, that kids have been showing up at local emergency departments identifying the show as a trigger. Given that, it’s understandable that educators wouldn’t want to use it as a teaching tool.
But is there room for some degree of proactivity, instead of waiting for kids to raise the issue? A meeting for students interested in discussing the issues related to the show? The fact is teens are talking about this. Even without the viral success of “13 Reasons Why,” we know, because teens aren’t shy about saying so, that these issues are being discussed in the hallways, cafeterias and the big world outside school.
This is reminiscent of the debate over modernizing sex education curriculum. In this world, we don’t get to control what gets created for our kids to see, hear, experience and be subjected to. All we can control is how we react to that. Being wide open to discussing these sensitive issues, and advertising that willingness, should be part of that.