A psychology professor's view of 13 Reasons Why

by Marc Wilson / 20 June, 2017
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The experiences in 13 Reasons Why are true to life.

13 Reasons Why, if nothing else, is an important conversation starter.

Let’s talk a little about 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix adaptation of the 2007 novel by Jay Asher.

Anyone who’s not been fasting in a hermit cave for the past couple of months will already know the premise of the show, in which a young woman, Hannah Baker, narrates her despair and the circumstances that caused it. It is not for the faint-hearted.

In New Zealand, the show has an RP18 classification, meaning those under 18 can only watch it in the company of a parent or guardian.

Assuming it’s watched on Netflix, it’s also preceded by a trigger warning about the depiction of a variety of unpleasant events.

Many of the kinds of experiences fictionalised here are not unfamiliar territory for anyone who’s ever watched television after 7pm. Even Shortland Street has dealt with many, if not all, of them.

One thing to point out is that Hannah’s experiences may be fictionalised, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen in real life: they do, perhaps not daily, in our New Zealand secondary schools. Look no further than the Roastbusters debacle.

The show has generated a fair amount of discussion, the portrayal of which is interesting. Media reports have routinely claimed that experts oppose the show. I’m certainly not an expert, but I am an enthusiastic amateur who knows just enough.

Also, I spend a lot of time with people who work in youth mental health. Indeed, my wife does, which was handy when we decided to watch the show with our 13-year-old son.

I’ve read a lot of well-informed opinion about the show and I can appreciate a lot of it. I agree that it presents just one path to teenage despair. But I also think it’s a fictionalised account of just one young person’s experiences, so it can’t be expected to do justice to the complexity of life.

The issue, then, is that viewers shouldn’t assume that this is the only way that people come to question their lives.

I agree that the portrayal of unpleasant events is harrowing (in fact, we fast-forwarded through some of these). As I’ve already noted, they’re not unique to this show, and they happen in our communities.

The pragmatist in me also knows that young New Zealanders are going to watch it, quite possibly off an illegal download stripped of the trigger warnings, so we may as well have the conversation with them. And that’s one of the things I like about 13RW – it is a great conversation starter.

At the same time, “have the conversation” doesn’t mean watching the show together, followed by a quick “you can talk to me about anything”. Talking to the young people in your life isn’t something you do only once, and you can’t assume that they’ll hold nothing back.

The work my colleagues and I do with large numbers of secondary school students around the country shows the importance of having an adult they feel they can talk to when times are tough.

In our research, the 20% of 13-year-olds who say they don’t have an adult to confide in are three times as likely to report symptoms consistent with moderate to severe depression, two-and-a-half times as likely to report moderate to severe anxiety, twice as likely to have used cannabis and four times as likely to have used something else to get high in the past year.

Your homework, then, if you have a young person in your care and you want to start that conversation, is to seize the moment. Ask them the best thing about their day and push past the non-committal grunt. Show an interest in even the little things, and do it every day.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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