I recently watched the series because a) I teach high schoolers b) I teach our peer-listener program, which trains teens to help peers who need help, and c) I have had countless incidents of having to identify and find support for students who are feeling suicidal.
Though I was engaged by the show, I was left unsettled, trying to pinpoint what bothered me most. I’m not alone in being unsettled. A number of articles have come out recently, expressing concerns, including mental health experts who see it as dangerous for teens to watch.
Whether we like it or not, adolescents are watching the show and being influenced by it. This is where educators have an opportunity. If you know your students (or children) are watching the show, find opportunities to engage dialogues. At minimum we can help students better understand the complexity of mental illness. Better yet, we can provide an outlet for students who really need help.
Consider these discussion questions for 13 Reasons Why as a starting point:
1. What was your takeaway from the series?
Lead with this one. Most students mention that the show helped them understand how their actions affect others. Although this is a pretty “stock” response, I’ve been impressed with how clearly students are able to discuss their own examples on both the giving and receiving end of social adversity. Still, this question opens up deeper dialogue for the questions that follow.
2. How does the atmosphere and conduct of our school compare to the school depicted in the series?
The depiction of educators as either aloof or antagonistic was irritating. I know adults and educators care. Nevertheless, students may still perceive adults as uncaring. That perception matters: If students don’t feel comfortable talking to adults about issues, then we will be oblivious to what is really happening in their world. This question creates a great space to talk about what is being done in our schools—and what could be done better to help kids in need. It also opens up conversation about how teens treat each other.
3. What about mental health do you think was accurate from the show? What do you think was missing?
Although 13 Reasons Why expresses a multidimensional view of suicide—that it stems from more than just a single event—it also fails to address complexity of mental illness. Genetic history, self-concept, biochemistry, coping strategies, and access to support systems are just a few of the many other factors that play into mental illness. This is why there is critical need to help students understand mental health more completely. We, as teachers, can be the first line in that fight.
4. What about dating and relationships do you think was accurate from the show? What do you think was missing?
The core of these questions is more than just “love gone wrong.” 13 Reasons Why is overt in its criticism of rape culture and sexual assault. While not every teacher will feel comfortable going into those topics with students, at bare minimum we can talk about how the culture of relationships affects well-being.
5. What do you think could have been done to get Hannah support or prevent her from taking her own life?
Elicit more than just “people should be nicer to each other” as an answer. Segue into conversations about warning signs. For example, many adolescents (and adults) scoff at evidence of self-harm as “attention-seeking,” ironically failing to help these students get the healthy support and attention they need. For an overview of warning signs consult The Suicide Prevention Lifeline
6. What would you do if you knew one of your peers was struggling emotionally or psychologically?
Beyond just knowing warning signs, teens need action steps. Again, The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a great starting point. If your school has a peer counseling program, leverage it in this conversation. At bare minimum, students need to know the importance of reaching out to adults—parents, teachers, counselors, and even public safety in emergencies. We also have to help students rally beyond the “fear of snitching.” For example, many students don’t know that social media sites like Facebook have anonymous ways to report concerning posts.
7. What do you do when you are stressed or struggling?
A major factor in maintaing mental health is having coping and stress management strategies. These include more than the pseudo-strategy of “stop worrying.” Learn what students are doing to manage stress. Then, if needed, help them identify other strategies. Consider starting here:
Critical to this conversation is iterating the importance of getting support externally if the stress is overwhelming, whether that is finding people in whom to confide or seeking professional help from a trained therapist.
Some may mistakenly believe that talking about 13 Reasons Why with students is endorsing a controversial show. It’s not. Talking about the series is an opportunity to dispel the “controversy” around discussing mental illness. Absence of dialogue is dangerous—as this series and our history with mental health shows. Don’t ignore the fact that teenagers are drawn to this show. Be the safe, empathic outlet that students need for their voices to be heard.