At lunch this week, a friend told me about a new Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” which tells the story of a teenage girl, bullied and mistreated by fellow classmates, who commits suicide. Prior to killing herself (which is graphically depicted in the show), she records thirteen cassette tapes directed at the fellow students and events she regards as ultimately causing her death. She then assures that each one of the responsible individuals will hear her indictment of them postmortem. Some reviewers of the show describe it as a depiction of suicide as a form of revenge.
Pop singer Selena Gomez is a producer of the show. From what I’ve read, she believes that this series serves as a strong public service announcement against bullying and will prevent teen suicide. While it would be wonderful if it would stop the bullies out there, I fear that on the suicide front it could have unfortunately the opposite effect.
Psychology and a few examples from the past suggest this strong possibility. As a result, social media is full of mental health advocates advising against teens watching this program. In New Zealand, an official warning is now attached to the show recommending that kids only watch it if accompanied by their parents.
While I’m not a psychologist, I do sadly know a little history that might support this advice.
I grew up in Plano, Texas, a vast sprawling and affluent suburb north of Dallas. Plano is really a very nice place but sadly it’s known nationally mostly for three things and two of them tragically involve the deaths of young people. First, there is Southfork Ranch, the fictitious home of oil magnate, J.R. Ewing from the television show Dallas. There are also the tragic heroin overdose deaths and suicides of eighteen young people in the late 1990s. Among the dead was the son of our neighbors across the street, so that tragedy always seemed close to home although by the time it happened I was married and living in Austin.
The one that feels most personal is what happened in the 1980’s when six kids committed suicide over a six month stretch. It seems much closer to home because five of those kids were students with my youngest sister at Plano Senior High School. To say that it had an impact on all of the kids there would be an understatement.
It’s chronicled elsewhere, including in a very good D Magazine article from that period, so I’ll spare most of the details of what happened here. Suffice it to say, it all started with a very tragic accident in which one boy accidently killed his best friend in a drag racing incident. The young man couldn’t handle the pain of what happened and committed suicide. Looking back, there were warning signs that he needed help in the week between his friend’s death and his suicide, but unfortunately for whatever reason they were missed.
While I certainly think suicide is tragic and horrible, at least in this situation the events leading to the young man’s actions could be put in some context. For the kids whose deaths followed, however, there was no such explanation. Instead, it all began looking like a copycat scenario where vulnerable kids were acting out in order to deal with problems that are fairly typical teen issues and which their grown up selves could have told them would really not seem as bad someday if they hadn’t taken the drastic step of cutting short their own lives.
Over time, I think even the kids who didn’t make such an awful choice came to understand that as well. Last night, I asked my sister about that period and she had two observations. First, she recalled one of the last suicides in that cluster of deaths. It was a couple who decided to kill themselves together so, as they said in suicide notes, they could be together forever.
My sister recalled the day after the students in her school were told what had happened. “A bunch of us were sitting together at lunch,” she remembered, “And then we all started talking about what happened and how dumb it was. We weren’t trying to be mean or insensitive. Instead, we just started reminding each other that this was high school and it would be silly to take our dating relationships so seriously.”
Her other observation came from what happened yesterday at her youngest daughter’s high school. Evidently, all the parents received a message yesterday morning that the body of a student had been found off campus. Immediately, she said, all the parents suspected suicide and wondered if this might be somehow connected to “13 Reasons Why.” She told me it was interesting that I called to talk to her about it on this particular day because since that happened, she’d been sharing throughout the day with fellow parents what happened in her own high school class years before and why she thought “13 Reasons Why” may not be such a good thing for kids to watch.
In the D Magazine article, “WHY PLANO,” there was a reference to something called The Werther Effect which the writer described as possibly explaining what happened in Plano. I decided to research a little further and found it fascinating, and also a little scary, when considering whether or not “13 Reasons Why” is acceptable viewing for kids.
Basically, the Werther Effect is the psychological term given for copycat or cluster suicides. It comes from a book written in 1774 called The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the book, the main character, dressed in yellow pants and a blue jacket, shoots and kills himself because he can’t be with the woman he loves.
As the book’s popularity increased, a disturbing trend also grew. Young men began dressing like Werther and committing suicide. The trend became so notable that several European countries banned the book in hopes of stemming the tide.
So even in the 1700s there was evidence that mass publication of a suicide, fictitious like the one in “13 Reasons Why,” could somehow lead individuals to take their own lives. That fact alone, borne out in history and evidenced by subsequent copycat suicides, should give one pause when their own son or daughter starts watching this show.
Another friend of mine has watched the entire series and her daughter is watching it now. She believes that it has merit in that it points out the harmful effects of bullying on others and addresses some real social concerns facing kids today. Her daughter is a happy well-adjusted person, and she doesn’t worry about her seeing it although she’s glad she saw it first. She also feels it would be somewhat different if the teen watching it was particularly vulnerable or clearly depressed.
Certainly no one should ever advocate revenge, but I do recall a famous quote that tries to put revenge in something of a positive light: “Living well is the best revenge.” That’s not a bad message for kids harassed by bullies and unpleasant people and circumstances beyond their control.
It’s too bad that couldn’t have somehow been the conclusion kids could draw from a show like this. Instead, they’re left with the idea that the best way to get even with someone who has wronged you is to kill yourself and leave them to live with the guilt. That’s clearly a terrible message.
If “13 Reasons Why” continues to grow in popularity (there is even talk of a second season), hopefully it won’t result in a chain of events similar to what happened in Europe in the 1700s and Plano, Texas, two centuries later.