We love spending time with the children of our congregation, and in doing so we learn so much about them – their needs, their wishes and of course the world they look to navigate each day. In building a safe, nurturing place at our synagogue where they feel safe communicating, we often hear what they are watching, reading and talking about with their peers. Because of this, it has recently come to our attention that the Netflix original series entitled 13 Reasons Why (based on a popular novel by Jay Asher, 2007) is being watched and certainly discussed by many of our junior and high school students. We have also discovered this show is on the radar of the younger siblings of our preteens and teens. We are concerned about their developmental maturity necessary in viewing and digesting the intense nature of this program.
We felt it important to provide resources and support for our families and their teens and preteens. We know that other communities are addressing this issue too, and so we wanted to share some resources in case they’re helpful to others as well.
The series revolves around 17-year old Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people who she says in some way were part of why she killed herself. The series graphically depicts a suicide death and addresses in wrenching detail difficult topics ranging from bullying, starting rumors, sharing compromising social media images, shaming, failing to be an “upstander”, sexual assault, drunk driving, drug use and not noticing the warning signs of impending suicide, or seeking adult help and intervention.
Mental health experts are torn; some suggest that that the show could pose health risks for young people who have suicidal thoughts, exposes viewers to multiple traumas and that it romanticizes the idea of suicide. Others suggest the show provides a valuable opportunity to discuss suicide risk with young people, as well as teaching them how to identify the warning signs of depression or suicidal thoughts among their peers.
The show is rated TV-MA, meaning the series may contain intensely suggestive dialogue, strong coarse language, intense sexual situations, or intense violence, which it does! But only parents can determine if the show is appropriate for their child. We recommend that parents view it for themselves, or watch alongside their children, but most certainly engage in dialogue with them about what they are feeling and thinking as they digest each episode. As articulated by the National Association of School Psychologists, this show might be an opportunity to better understand children’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. But they will need supportive, understanding and caring adults to process it. Below are number of resources to aid parents and communities in that goal:
- National Association of School Psychologists’ Guidance for educators
- 13 Reasons Tip Sheet from SAVE.org and the JED Foundation
- Beyond the Reasons: (Also on Netflix) This 30 minute follow up to the series interviews the cast, producers and mental health professionals to discuss scenes dealing with the difficult issues.
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline: or call 1-800-273-TALK
- A really helpful article for parents with great tips/advice if they are watching together!
- Psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz speaks about the danger of 13 Reasons Why.
Most importantly, we should let our communities and congregations know that we are here for them and their children. Sometimes these topics (and realities for some of our teens) are too painful and embarrassing to discuss with their parents. Educators recommend that parents remind their children to seek out connections and relationships with other adults. We can be those adults.
Our tradition affirms life and celebrates hope. Rabbi Gedalyahu Schorr teaches, “Just as the hurts from our past leave an imprint on our souls, all the joys from our future leave an imprint on our souls.” The pain, the trauma, and the darkness we experience along life’s journey may shake us, and scar us, and may even make it hard to find the courage to begin again. But our future joys are inscribed on our souls, too. Let us help those around us – most especially our young people seek the beauty waiting for them around the next bend, help them discover new opportunities that will bring light into their world, aid them in embracing more confidence, more light and more hope.
Rabbi David Gelfand and Rabbi Melissa Buyer serve Temple Israel of the City of New York.