I am a school psychologist based out of New York who works with children and teens. In my work with parents, I often feel that many parents don’t fully grasp how difficult it is to be a teenager in today’s society.
The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” helps paint a fuller picture so that parents can better comprehend how day-to-day life is intricately related to the mental health of our society’s teens.
1. …Because the series shines a spotlight on the mental health issues that our children face on a daily basis. According to the New York Association of School Psychologists:
20 percent of children are diagnosed with a mental health disorder severe enough to interfere with their daily life functioning.
75-80 percent of those children do not receive the appropriate mental health services to address these problems.
Mental health problems impact a child’s ability to function in school, including academic achievement, performance on standardized testing, and social interactions with others.
The series also tackles other very important and related issues such as date rape and of course, suicide. According to TeenHelp.com roughly 44 percent of rape victims are below the age of 18 and almost 92 percent of all teen rape victims know their attackers. The Centers for Disease Control states that suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, and that roughly 16 percent of teens reported seriously considering suicide.
2. …Because - and let’s not fool ourselves - every school has a bullying problem. School only vary in terms of how bad the problem is and what the school community does about it. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, bullying refers to a relationship where one person repeatedly acts negatively towards another. Bullies intentionally harm their victims because they often hold an official or unofficial position of power over their victims. Bullies often feel positively after their actions, while victims are left hurt, saddened, angry, or, all too often empty inside.
70 percent of all children have been exposed to some form of bullying in their school career. More children have been exposed to bullying than the Zika virus, but you don’t hear that much about it on cable news networks.
Bullying is way too common in our society. I used the word “society” and not just “school.” Schools have the capability to lead in changing the overall climate and tenor of our interactions, but we as a society need to consider what we value. A value is something that you are willing to devote time, money, or some other form of energy toward. In order to deal with bullying more effectively, our society must learn to value positivity so much more.
3. …Because we can’t deal with bullying on a case-by-case basis. We need a wholesale approach to dealing with this issue. Recently educators have been critically looking at how they can change the climate of each and every school. A positive school climate is one where administrators, teachers and peers are welcoming towards each other; families are valued and voluntarily participate in the life of the school as best as they can (Doll, 2010). Studies show that the development and maintenance of a positive school climate can serve to prevent mental health issues or in several cases identify these issues before they have the opportunity to spiral into something larger.
In essence, we are talking about treating our mental health like our dental and medical health through regular teeth cleanings and medical check-ups. These semi-regular appointments serve as buffers to prevent future problems and check-ins to make sure we are doing OK. And if we’re not OK, we start to get more help to make sure the problems don’t get worse. Establishing a positive environment, first in school and then throughout the community goes a long way in preventing mental health difficulties.
But we’re not in the habit of doing that with our children’s mental health. That’s unfortunate because:
“...a school’s climate contributes to the academic success of its students and predicts the degree to which they actively participate in learning, including how consistently they attend school, how attentive they are in class, how carefully they complete their class assignments, and how committed they are to staying in school and doing well there. Students who feel connected to their school are more likely to graduate and move on to successful postsecondary educational and career opportunities” (Doll, B. (2010). Positive School Climate. Principal Leadership, December 2010, 12-16).
4. …Because bullies have developed more innovative ways to perpetrate violence on their victims. Up to 35 percent of tweens and teens report being victims of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying affects children in much the same way as other forms of bullying but its effects are so much worse.
As adults, we may sometimes minimize the effects that social media have on our children’s lives because many of us did not have to deal with this phenomenon. But in some ways, cyberbullying can be more vicious than F2F bullying. Explicit pictures or derogatory labels will spread like wildfire among a student body, and linger in cyberspace for an eternity. Compulsory education laws require that children attend school, and they often have little choice as to where they will go.
So the cyberbullied child is stuck, forced to endure this harassment over and over again in a torturous loop. New friends will eventually stumble upon the photos or notes. Adults may be fond of using the the catchphrase “it gets better” but when presented to victims of bullying, the term almost seems like something out of a fairy tale.
5. …Because we have a tendency as adults to look at teenage problems as trivial. But to teens, each instance (positive or negative) is earth shattering. Adults have had the luxury of time and know that many of these problems will pass. We even tell teens “…these problems will pass” and expect our clever combinations of words to subdue their passions.
Every uncomfortable situation is the most embarrassing thing ever, because for them, it is the most embarrassing thing ever. They haven’t been on the planet for very long, so they don’t have the experience of multiple embarrassing situations – at least not as many as you or I. They’ve only been in school for a handful of years, and they’ve been walking on two legs for slightly more than that.
6. …Because it has always been inherently more difficult to be a teenage girl and the series presents this experience in a gut-wrenchingly real way. Many girls have to deal with other girls who engage in frenemy bullying. Frenemies maintain power over their victims by providing unpredictable interactions that change from positive to negative at a moment’s notice.
Female and male bullies will often compare their female victims’ bodies and appearances to other girls, which results in more competition, less power for victims and more collateral fighting. Slut shaming is a process of character assassination where girls are made to appear terrible based on comments or actions about their real or assumed sexual history. Almost half of all teenage girls report that they’ve experienced slut shaming.
Finally, male bullies may often perpetrate actions that range from physical violence to rape. The physical act of rape is so soul-suckingly horrific, but the blame that is assigned to the victim (“She was asking for it”) will not doubt serve to mutilate a young girl’s self-esteem. In many ways, the invalidation of a rape survivor’s experiences can be more damaging than the actual rape itself.
7. …Because we need to encourage our children to report incidents of abuse to their parents or teachers, and to stand up for the rights of victims. In the series we repeatedly saw children standing idly by while some real abuse was levied against the female lead. In other instances, we saw other teens who were awkward, non-conforming, or had alternative sexual orientations bullied. And again, other children stood idly by. Some teens didn’t perpetrate the bullying violence, but laughed at provocative photos on social media or joined in the taunting of various characters. Just as bad.
These teens would be called bystanders and they factor prominently in the bully-victim cycle. Bystanders witness the aggression (and in some cases may join in afterwards). They are bound, oftentimes by the old adage of “snitches get stitches”, and in a culture where whistleblowers are often demonized, it’s no wonder that children are afraid to step forward and report anything. According to the National Association of School Psychologists’ Position Statement on Bullying, the failure of bystanders to intervene contributes to a hostile school climate, further intimidation (and invalidation) of the victim, and lays the foundation for physical acts of violence.
Again, our role as a society should be to place a premium on positive social interactions and to value those that come forward to report incidents of bullying.
8. …Because suicide represents the inability of a community or society to help someone who is suffering. When characters in the series discussed the decision to commit suicide, someone would inevitably utter, “It was her choice.”
But choices are not made in a vacuum. Choices are made within the context of the environment. I can say that I want to include more fruit in my diet, but if I cannot find any fruit in my neighborhood, then my choices will be limited.
The main character existed in a zone where there were few choices for her. She was at the mercy of several bullies at her school and is exposed to other intense stressors. She didn’t know how exactly to ask for help, and didn’t know what sort of help she should ask for (See #5 – teens have had limited experiences on earth). She just didn’t have the language to ask for help. And given the school climate (slurs written on the bathroom walls, staff that was aloof to students on their best days, and the official glorification of one set of students at the expense of others), she may have seriously doubted that she would have gotten help.
9. …Because the reasons that teens commit suicide are multi-layered and complex and rarely due to one reason. Our main character experienced so many horrible events in her life, felt trapped in her circumstances, and also was not listened to. There was no one willing to stop and listen to what she had to say, objectively and without judgment; nobody tried to feel what she felt or see the world through her eyes. Many of the adults in the series talked to the children but didn’t talk with them; and that’s what the children did, too. The series doesn’t try to provide an easy, tidy solution but presents this phenomenon in all its complexity.
10. …Because all children mourn loss in different ways. Some children become introspective while others become erratic. Others simply adhere to routine as if it is the only way to maintain their sanity. Substance abuse, aloofness, denial, and sometimes sheer emptiness were all experiences that teens have when dealing with loss. One of the most striking features of this series was that many of the parents were not there physically or emotionally. The patent answer that these children gave their parents was, “I didn’t know her all that well,” and that’s what the parents heard. It was almost like these characters didn’t know how to ask for help.
In many instances these children did not know the girl who committed suicide very well at all. But even being exposed to a suicide in the same school raises the danger of suicide contagion, where other children will engage in suicidal attempts after an actual suicide. Sometimes the event triggers some intense emotional reactions and the teen will often develop a plan for suicide. The period of time after a suicide is critically important for our children and we need to be watchful.
11. …Because the series is so much better than the afterschool specials or the “very special episodes” of our favorite television series. It’s hard to watch. You’re forced to experience how the life of a teenager is not pretty. The series also shies away from providing easy explanations for events and does not tie everything up in the end. Like real life.
12. …Because our kids will find a way to watch the series, anyway. Whether it’s now or a lot later. Whether we watch it with them or if they find some way to watch the series without us. (Note: They probably have already watched it and read the book that it was based on.)
It’s stark how little the parents knew about their children. In many instances, parents resorted to repeating Pollyanna-ish descriptions that represented what they wanted their children to be (“You’re not that kind of kid”). But they didn’t stop to get know what their children’s likes and dislikes were, what they did during their free time, and more importantly how they felt about this suicide. Many of the parents had difficulties identifying their children’s friends. I don’t want us to be those sorts of parents.
To that end, the series has developed an online guide meant to be a starting point meant to help us as parents discuss these difficult issues with these children.
13. …Because the series is really a study of what happens to our society when we all (adults and children) value the wrong things: not listening to one anther and not having the language to ask for help; questioning the motives of victims; not speaking out and living with injustice perpetrated on others.
The conversations that will arise from this movie will undoubtedly center on what we can do to prevent these events from occurring – bullying, slut shaming, date rape, and suicide. Schools are a good starting point to prevent these issues, but we also need to look at our society and what it has become.
How can we teach children to listen and act civilly to one another when public discourse involves yelling at one another? How do we teach children to not question the motives of victims when this is done almost routinely to women who have been sexually harassed and raped? How do we teach our children to speak out against violence when the world is all too often content to turn a blind eye to injustice?
The real reason that we all should watch “13 Reasons Why” is because it is a request to consider our relationships with our children as well as one another.