13 Reasons why helped young people to talk.

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Why we should embrace shows like '13 Reason Why' this instead of demonising them

As the speculation on Season 2 of "13 Reasons Why" keeps growing, I for one am holding my breath to see what subject Netflix tackles next in this series. My thoughts are it could be school shooting, but you can bet whatever it is the attention and condemnation of the show will continue. As someone who has worked with young people for over 30 years, I really do believe that we should embrace shows like this instead of demonising them.

Season 1 of the show, based on a novel follows the story of a girl who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes explaining why she did it and who she thought was responsible. Some of the reasons seem like everyday occurrences and some are much more dire, but all are situations that young people deal with every day.

It hooked the teens and divided the adults

Adults came out in their droves condemning the subject matter and harrowing realness of the show. Schools were sending letters home warning parents to not let their children watch it and psychologists were calling the show irresponsible and even suggested that the nature of it might lead more people to taking their own life. While Netflix did suggest that the rating for the show was 18, by that time most of young people had watched it anyway. As always, it took the adults ages to catch up, and the youth had already formed strong opinions of this groundbreaking show that the adults were refusing to entertain.

I watched the show, I loved it and I have spoken to many teenagers about this show and their experience of it simply does not match up with the fearmongering. Most found it an interesting watch that really helped them understand suicide and loneliness more, most telling me that they had began to reach out to loners more and be more careful in what they said to others. All in all it made them more empathetic. I spoke with young people who had tried to commit suicide or at times felt suicidal and by and large they found it real and poignant.

Did it romanticised suicide and trigger people?

The main argument about this programme was that it somehow romanticised suicide, however, anyone who made it through the actual suicide scene would tell you it did the opposite; it was horrid, graphic and left you understanding how desperate someone must have to get to do that.

The other argument was that this show was a trigger for young people who perhaps had tried to take their own life or were thinking of it. (I’m not even going to get started on how much I hate the word trigger and all it stands for). Life is one big trigger all of the time and we need to support young people to deal with these triggers when they happen rather than over-protecting them. We also need to have them take some responsibility for their actions and choices; it was clear what the show was about and the appropriate warnings were in place. The bigger conversation we should have been having was how young people don’t have to do anything they feel uncomfortable with just because everyone else is doing it. Also, for me this brings up another issue I see with all kinds of mental health and illness, in that we tell young people to talk but then place boundaries and rules about how that must happen. This show sparked many conversations about the issued raised, which I believe reached further than any mental health practitioner or psychologist could ever hope for. Surely a better way forward would have been to take part in these conversations rather than condemning them. The best conversation I heard about triggers was on Radio 4, where a director was citing research that shows how unlikely someone is to do something just because they see it on TV. The lamest of arguments however seemed to be that this show showed people how to commit suicide. The show saw an increase in young people reaching out to professionals, which they often cited as an issue; isn’t that a good thing?

It got young people talking

For me the brilliance of this show was in showing you as the viewer how the decision to take your life is a complicated, multi-faceted one that builds up over time. It wasn’t just one thing, wasn’t one big event, it was lots of events that accumulated. It made you think about the sometimes flippant way we deal with people and how we never really know what another is going through.  I remember talking to one teen about it and he was telling me how he and his friends had reached out to a kid in their school who always seemed sad and alone, how the show had made them wonder if he was feeling like Hannah and what they could do to help him. In fact the words, "Going to do a Hannah” is becoming synonymous with young people recognising and identifying the people around them that might need help. A show, a TV show condemned by most adults did that! That TV show is still changing behavior in young people.

We need to treat young people with a little bit more respect I feel; they are much more capable and intelligent then we give them credit for. This show  felt real to them; they watched, they absorbed, they listened and they began to change things. One school even released a video entitled 13 Reasons you should Stay Alive.

Did Netflix fail the kids?

If Netflix failed anywhere with this show it was in not providing support material that allowed parents, teachers and youth organizations to continue the conversations that this show started. We must as a society stop trying to control how these conversations happen and start treating our young people as people with valid opinions, capable of debate and compassion.