Two months ago, I had never heard of 13 Reasons Why. I had no idea that topics of suicide, bullying, boys degrading girls, low self-esteem, poor sense of self, violence, sexual assault and loneliness would be brought out in such a dramatic, shocking and dangerous forum on Netflix. I had no idea that a show like this would be watched by millions of youth before parents (myself included) would even find out about it.
In the past month, I have watched 13 Reasons Why twice.
Research indicates that by the age of 15, approximately 20 percent of children will have a mental health diagnosis (the issue of mental health was not discussed in 13 Reasons Why). Death by suicide is now the second leading cause of death in our teenagers and there is a rise in middle school children in thoughts of death by suicide. Yet, the community remained silent, until this show forced schools to acknowledge that there might be a problem for our youth or at the least the show might be a trigger for some who are already at risk.
Many schools did their due diligence and wrote letters to parents warning them about the show. I saw many letters from both independent schools and Jewish schools. The letters were well thought out and gave parents tools on current educational practices (with links) in speaking to your own children at home about these topics. Many schools warned parents not to allow children to watch the show or at least to watch the show with your child and have conversations and open dialogue.
Some schools have attempted conversations with children successfully. Other schools have tried but not all professionals are equipped or comfortable discussing these topics, and their awkwardness is felt by the teenagers. Reportedly, teenagers in some classes were pushing back that the school is only speaking about it now—as a response to the show (they have a point...).
Unfortunately, in my opinion, some schools made it very clear they will not discuss these topics in school. Rather, when they gather groups of children together, they focus on mundane non-significant topics. Talk about the elephant in the room (I am currently reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg, which I highly recommend). These schools, in my opinion, are not allowing for conversations about social emotional dialogue and healthy discussions of signs of mental health issues. Current trends in best educational practice and research indicate that middle school children need these type of conversations as well; in a developmentally appropriate way.
In general, there is not much proactive education in our schools about topics of mental health and suicide.
Thankfully, now some schools are engaging in dialogue with our children and teenagers. We need to educate ourselves and our children about mental health. It is my opinion that more professional development is needed so that when conversations begin, the facilitators are comfortable and have true understanding of mental illness, suicide, bullying, mean-girl behavior and sexual assault. This might require bringing outside professionals with experience in these areas to speak directly to students in middle school and high school and help train teachers, mental health professionals and parents to be more comfortable speaking about these serious topics in a more organic way. Kudos to SAR high school for inviting parents in to speak about the show in a morning breakfast with their psychologists. I think that is a great beginning. Statistically, mental health issues are only on the rise.
What worries me most are the long-term (research supported) consequences of kids that are being rejected and deliberately socially excluded. Social exclusion, bullying, mean and cruel words, cyber bullying and physical altercations can have serious long-term effects on children. Some argue (including myself at times), that experiencing these behaviors make children resilient (“tough”), that kids will be kids, and we should focus on teaching children problem-solving skills, conflict resolution and self-advocacy. True, this is appropriate to teach to all children at all ages, but I worry about the children that develop poor self-esteem and a poor sense of self from experiencing these repetitive, targeted and negative types of behaviors. More important, when these ongoing behaviors are not addressed or recognized, it could lead to depression, generalized anxiety disorders, social anxiety and suicidal ideation that could ultimately and tragically lead to ending a life. Hence, the popularity factor of 13 Reasons Why. They chose the shock factor route to get your attention and it worked.
However, the show was negligent. Suicide can be prevented. Unlike 13 Reasons Why, there is hope and interventions can help. Adults can be more educated on this and children should be encouraged to seek help. Ending a life is not the solution. 13 Reasons Why gives suicide as the only solution and the ultimate revenge fantasy. Mental health can be spoken about publicly, proactively, in a healthy and age-appropriate way that could give children (and adults) the feeling that they are not alone. Because they aren’t alone, or at least they shouldn’t be alone. There is hope because now we are aware enough to continue these conversations in healthier ways. Not as a response to a TV show but in a controlled research-driven approach.
At the end of the day, all kids and adults want to feel included and feel like someone cares about them. They want to be treated with respect and feel valued. We can work together in helping each other treat each other with dignity, compassion and integrity. Small acts of kindness can go far. Make someone smile. Offer to help someone struggling with homework. Give a compliment. Go out for coffee with someone that looks lonely. Invite someone to sit at your lunch table. Make a plan to hang out with someone over the weekend. Answer a text. Include others in your conversation. Look someone in the eye. Consider the negative impact that Snapchat can have on others. Express gratitude (I heard Tal Ben Shachar speak about this yesterday—he was excellent). These are small gestures that can make a huge difference and can help children and young adults feel less isolated and more connected, gain positive self-esteem and ultimately feel a reason to choose life.
By Michal Agus Fox
Michal Agus Fox is married to Dr. Natie Fox. They have four children and live in Englewood. Michal is a school psychologist at a private Jewish day school in NYC.