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’13 Reasons Why’: Strengths, challenges and recommendations

By Laura Shannonhouse, Julia L. Whisenhunt, Dennis Lin and Michael Porter September 4, 2017

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has launched a national discussion regarding teen suicide, motivating a webinar response from professional organizations about how to shape the dialogue, dozens of editorials and millions of cautionary letters home from schools to parents across the country.

The series, based on a novel, is narrated by high school student Hannah Baker, who made a series of cassette tapes to be passed to 13 individuals she argues contributed to her reasons for dying. Her story is seen through the eyes of a peer, Clay, who listens to the tapes. He comes to understand Hannah’s perspectives about those people and events she claims motivated her suicide, which include Clay’s own (in)actions.

The series has been critically acclaimed for the acting and commended for addressing challenging topics, such as bullying/cyberbullying, sexual assault and teen suicide. However, school administrations, school counseling associations, suicide prevention organizations and counseling/psychology associations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) have advised caution because of the graphic nature, revenge fantasies and potential contagion effect. This article highlights strengths and major challenges of the series. It also provides recommendations that have been underrepresented, though not absent, in the discussion.

 

Strengths

1) Raising awareness that suicide is a real problem.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is a major public health issue. The most recent  statistics available note that among high school students, 17 percent have seriously considered suicide, while 8 percent have attempted suicide within the past 12 months. We know that for every suicide, there are many survivors, including the family and friends of the person and those who have experienced psychological, physical and social distress after exposure to a suicide.” The most commonly cited statistic is that each suicide directly affects six people; however, more recent research argues there are between 45 and 80 survivors per suicide.

In 2015, there were more than 44,000 reported suicide deaths, including 5,191 deaths by suicide among those ages 15 to 24. However, this statistic includes only those that were reported. Although there is no consensus on the rate of under-reporting due to stigma or ambiguous cause of death, the best analysis suggests that for each completed youth suicide, there are 100-200 times as many nonfatal suicide actions.

Combining CDC data with our current understanding of rates of suicidal ideation in youth, in this moment there are close to 15 million people in the U.S. who think of suicide in any given year. Suicide is a very real public health issue; when it is ignored, stigmatized or minimized, we as a community are missing the chance to prevent it.

2) Even professional counselors may not be ready to respond to a suicidal situation.

Because counselors often receive referrals of clients who are suicidal, counselors’ competency in identifying and intervening with those at risk is crucially important. However, the overtaxed counselor in 13 Reasons Why, Mr. Porter, is underprepared to face a suicidal student coping with complex trauma. Although he did not act in the scope of best practice, his failings are unfortunately not unusual among counselors, despite decades of advocacy for increased suicide assessment trainings in counselor education.

Mr. Porter missed several suicidal statements (e.g., “I need everything to stop”), made assumptions about contributing events and was uncomfortable talking about suicide (and other issues). We may easily judge Mr. Porter’s mistakes, but as counselors, we should take this opportunity to reflect and ask ourselves if we are ready to respond to a student at risk of suicide. The research is equivocal.

3) Suicide is complex and individual.

Although 13 Reasons Why portrays some known “red flags” that can indicate suicidal intent, the factors that contribute to individual suicides vary. Stressors that may influence one person’s decision to die by suicide may not have the same effect on others. For instance, we know that not all people who are depressed die by suicide (research shows the rate is from 2-15 percent) and that not all people who complete suicide are depressed. There is a variety of prevention programming regarding common warning signs. However, there is no perfect amalgam of warning signs or demographics (e.g., risk for transgender persons) that helps us differentiate who will decide to die by suicide. We need to go beyond just learning warning signs in order to help.

Livingworks, a suicide intervention training organization, focuses on three elements when assessing warning signs and risk factors. First, we must look for the meaning behind stressful events. For instance, in 13 Reasons Why, being listed “Best Ass” was highly distressing to Hannah because she felt objectified and was concerned people would misperceive her to be easy. However, another student, Angela “Best Lips” Romero, was flattered by such attention. The meaning behind the stressful event is more important than the stressful event itself.

Second, we need to know that warning signs can be, and often are, expressions of pain. When Hannah pushed Clay away, he recognized that something was wrong but did not see that her rejection was an indication of emotional pain. Third, we must trust our intuition. One peer recognizes Hannah’s poem as a cry for help but does not offer assistance. We need to pay attention to our gut feelings and act on them to take care of each other.

13 Reasons Why provides an opportunity to see Hannah’s experience of several traumatic events (cyberbullying, being stalked, public objectification, losing money, feeling responsible for a person’s death, witnessing rape and being raped) and does a good job of depicting the pain, shame and isolation she experiences as a result. The viewer has an opportunity to consider Hannah’s subjective experience and understand how the cumulative effect of these “reasons why” motivates her to suicide.

One model to help contextualize suicidality is the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior developed by psychologist Thomas Joiner. Joiner states that the highest risk occurs when one feels like a burden to others, feels alienated or lacks belongingness and, crucially, has overcome the natural human inclination toward self-preservation. This model posits that suicide is a process — one gradually builds tolerance to the idea through self-injurious thoughts or behaviors (although each person’s path is unique). There are multiple points on that path at which others can intervene. The 13 Reasons Why series emphasizes those missed opportunities. As in Hannah’s case, every day there are suicides that happen as a result of those missed opportunities.

4) The central message is a positive one.

In the last episode, Clay says to Mr. Porter, “It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other.” Instead of feeling guilty or turning away, we can task ourselves with being more supportive community members.

All too often, we operate from a place of fear, which is understandable considering that schools have a legal duty to protect students from self-harm, and lawsuits are a potential reality (as shown in 13 Reasons Why). However, when systems or individual responders act out of fear, it focuses the interaction away from the needs of the person at risk. Even well-intentioned modern practices of “suicide gatekeeping” have substituted swift (and protocol-driven) identification and referral for the direct supportive intervention by community members proposed by John Snyder in 1971. Clay’s words echo those from Snyder half a century ago, when he said that most “who attempt suicide are victims of breakdowns in community channels for help.”

Although Mr. Porter clearly failed to proper identify Hannah’s suicidal ideation, perhaps even more troubling was his failure to hear her story and understand the factors behind her decision to die by suicide. Listening and demonstrating empathy to someone who is struggling was demonstrated to reduce suicidal ideation on calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Talking about suicide can help the person at risk to no longer focus on the past or feel alone and, instead, shift to the present moment, where the person can feel understood and cared for. If those in Hannah’s community who were witness to her emotional pain had actively engaged her and listened, it may have reduced her isolation and lessened her self-perception as a burden. This may even have prevented Hannah’s death.

Research indicates that our personal beliefs about suicide influence our responder behaviors. Therefore, gaining awareness of our beliefs and how our ability to intervene is affected by them is vital. Regardless of whether we can stop a suicide, we can control how prepared we are to try. We can make sure that our systems (in schools and elsewhere) are places where it is easy for someone to receive help.

After working through Hannah’s tapes, Clay now believes that we are, in a way, our brother’s keepers. Community-level response by direct intervention is a central theme in my (Laura Shannonhouse) research. It involves equipping “natural helpers” (e.g., teachers, bus drivers, resources officers, school counselors/psychologists) with the skills needed to perform a life-assisting suicide intervention at the moment it is needed most.

The producers and cast of 13 Reasons Why have underscored their desire for this series to start a conversation. Although that has certainly been accomplished, we hope the dialogue focuses more on how we can “look out for one another” and foster communities less at risk for suicide.

 

Challenges

1) Graphic nature and contagion

Viewers of 13 Reasons Why watch two rape scenes and Hannah’s suicide, which is shown in detail. Nic Sheff, one of the writers of the series, stated that the scene of Hannah’s suicide was intended “to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off.” Some crisis texts suggest that we “deromanticize” suicide by helping our clients understand the unintended effects of trying to die by suicide, such as surviving but becoming disabled or alienating friends and family. Therefore, an argument could be made that a graphic, painful portrayal of suicide is warranted.

However, research does suggest that suicide portrayals can contribute to contagion by triggering suicidal behaviors in people — particularly youth — who are experiencing high levels of emotional distress. In fact, SPRC and AFSP have made recommendations for best practices in prevention of suicide contagion. A discussion of post-suicide intervention to prevent contagion is beyond the scope of this article, but as an example, the locker memorial portrayed throughout the series is against standard guidance (it should not last for weeks, as shown). Furthermore, when considering how media reaction to the series has often included sensational headlines, it is helpful to review these recommendations for reporting on suicide.

2) Survivor’s guilt and revenge fantasies

By assigning “reasons why,” the series sends a message that Hannah’s death is caused by other people’s actions. When Clay openly questions, “Did I kill Hannah Baker?” his friend Tony answers dramatically, “Yes, we all killed Hannah Baker.”

Although we suggested earlier that we all have a responsibility to create communities that help prevent suicide, Tony’s level of direct attribution can be counterproductive. Hannah experienced multiple losses, traumas and stressors caused by others, both intentionally and unintentionally. Placing responsibility for her death on those individuals instead of on Hannah’s action can exacerbate survivors’ guilt. Those viewers who have lost a friend, loved one or acquaintance to suicide may feel even more strongly after viewing the series that “It is my fault.”

These feelings are associated with lower functioning in comparison with survivors of accidents. Although undeserved, survivor’s guilt is a real phenomenon, and considerable research shows that even counselors who experience the death of a client by suicide can experience shame/embarrassment and emotional distress.

Whereas Clay may feel guilt for his part in Hannah’s story, the tapes could implicate others in criminal or negligent behavior, perhaps giving Hannah posthumous revenge. Some viewers who may have struggled with suicidal ideation themselves could get the message that if they take their lives, they can get revenge on those who have hurt them. This is an additional reason that schools across the nation and professional helping organizations have felt the need to do damage control for 13 Reasons Why.

 

Recommendations

1) Parents need to not just talk but watch, listen and connect.

Some school counselors argue that it’s harmful for children and teens to watch the series on their own without the support of a parent or trusted adult because the series depicts a graphic and romanticized portrayal of a teenager in crisis and does not identify competent resources capable of helping her. Accordingly, many experts encourage parents to talk to their children about the series. In addition to using talking points, we recommend that parents listen deeply and without judgment to what their children say. When people feel genuinely heard, they are more likely to talk about their true thoughts and feelings.

To accomplish this goal, parents can use active listening skills, such as open-ended questions, reflections of feeling, paraphrasing and encouragement. Also, we recommend that parents watch the series and risk being human — risk being impacted by the series and empathizing with their child. The construct of empathy is powerful, particularly if it is sincere. For a three-minute visual summary, consider watching Brene Brown on empathy. In our counseling skills courses, we often talk about “getting in the well of despair” and genuinely connecting with others. We know that talking about suicide paradoxically provides a significant buffer to suicidal action.

2) We need more than prevention programming in schools.

We know from a well-regarded U.S. Air Force study that we need suicide programing at all three levels: prevention, intervention and post-intervention. Many suicide prevention programs have been implemented in the school context, but there is mixed evidence of their effectiveness. From our clinical experience in crisis response, our scholarship and our history with training a specific model of suicide intervention, we need to acknowledge that we are biased about what types of programming should be implemented and when is the right time to implement. We feel that an appropriate first step for a school system is to implement basic screeners and gatekeeper trainings such as Signs of Suicide or Sources of Strength.

However, suicide prevention should not end with identification for referral. Optimally, the process continues by assessing level of risk, identifying reasons for dying and reasons for living, discussing alternatives to dying, enlisting the support of trusted loved ones and limiting access to lethal means or securing the person’s environment. Because youth who struggle with thoughts of suicide often seek out the support of those they trust rather than professional mental health providers, those teachers, coaches and others with open hearts and doors are the most effective gatekeepers for a system. Their nondirection and empathy are useful pedagogical qualities and vital to effective suicide intervention.

We endorse models that empower those “natural helpers” to provide a potentially life-saving intervention for students who are in suicidal distress. Although this may be augmented with the support and follow-up of a trained mental health provider, gatekeepers can implement the steps listed above.

3) Be intentional about identifying caregivers and shifting school culture.

My (Shannonhouse) research involves partnering with school districts and superintendents (in Maine and Georgia) to identify “natural helpers” and equip them with the skills to perform a life-assisting intervention in the moment (i.e., Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST). These natural helpers are often teachers, resource officers, coaches, administrative staff, bus drivers and other people who are likely to be confidants to students who experience distress. Measuring suicide intervention skills and responder attitudes is easy for an academic. Identifying those school personnel in the trenches who would be first responders is more difficult — it requires the total involvement of administrators. Furthermore, such an approach requires schools to commit to a student-centered response model.

ASIST is relationship-driven and aligned with the values of the helping professions. It meets the needs of students who are at risk by focusing on responding to those immediate needs rather than referring the student (which can lead to further isolation and an increased sense of burdensomeness). Although the student is often referred for more long-term counseling, ASIST provides the student with a six-step intervention at the moment it is most needed and can be performed by anyone over age 18. Having natural helpers trained in ASIST or a similar protocol can dramatically increase a school’s responsiveness and effectiveness to help students in distress.

4) Use an intervention model backed by research.

ASIST is a 14-hour, two-day, internationally recognized and evidence-based model that has been adopted by multiple states and the U.S. Army. It has also been recognized by the CDC and used in crisis centers nationwide. Caregivers trained in ASIST consistently report feeling more ready, willing and able to intervene with a person at risk of suicide.

The program has been evaluated in a variety of settings (click to download), with pretest to post-test improvement noted in trainees’ comfort level at intervention and in their demonstrated intervention skills in response to simulated scenarios. Although outcome research is rare, research compared ASIST-trained counselors with those trained in other models through a double-blind, randomly controlled study of more than 1,500 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Those trained in ASIST more often demonstrated particular behaviors such as exploring invitations, exploring reasons for living, recognizing ambivalence about dying and identifying informal support contacts. Those trained in ASIST also elicited longer calls.

We found that ASIST can be applied to both university and K-12 settings. Our work measured increased suicide intervention skills and beneficial responder attitudes, which have been maintained over time. We have trained more than 500 people in ASIST and have received multiple reports of teachers disarming fully formed suicide plans with their new skills. More recently, we have conducted behavioral observations of ASIST responder behavior and have begun evaluating outcomes of students who have received ASIST intervention. Initial results have been promising, including better coping and commitment to follow-up and decreased lethality.

 

Summary

Although 13 Reasons Why gives us pause for its poor portrayal of effective suicide intervention, we feel that the series raises awareness and, at its core, advocates a community-level response to suicide prevention. This message to “look out for each other” is aligned with more intervention-oriented gatekeeping. We have explored the impact of one such model, ASIST, in several educational settings and found that it improves responder behavior. Furthermore, this approach comes with a mindset that systems can harness their strengths (i.e., natural helpers) to focus on responding to and intervening with the student rather than simply identifying and referring the student to the system.

 

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Please contact me (Laura Shannonhouse) should you have any questions about our research.

 

 

Laura Shannonhouse is an assistant professor in the Counseling and Psychological Services Department at Georgia State University. Her research interests focus on crisis intervention and disaster response, particularly involving social justice issues in this context. Currently, she is conducting community-based research in K-12 schools (suicide first aid) to prevent youth suicide and with disaster-impacted populations in fostering meaning-making through one’s faith tradition (spiritual first aid).

 

Julia L. Whisenhunt is an associate professor of counselor education and college student affairs at the University of West Georgia. She specializes in the areas of self-injury, suicide prevention and creative counseling. She is particularly interested in the relationship between self-injury and suicide and ways that mental health professionals can apply this knowledge to clinical intervention.

 

Dennis Lin is an assistant professor at New Jersey City University, with areas of expertise in play therapy, child/adolescent counseling and assessment, suicide prevention/intervention, quantitative research and meta-analysis. He is also a certified master trainer of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST).

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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