By Paul Gionfriddo, MHA President and CEO
Photo Credit: Beth Dubber/Netflix
Warning: Some major plot spoilers below, as well as sensitive content including suicide, sexual assault
Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why gives us another opportunity to talk about some of the most troubling and traumatic events that confront young adults in American society today. It also offers the beginnings of a road map to do something about them.
I am not a TV critic, so I will leave it to others to say whether the show is "good television" or not. On a personal level, I find it compelling and absorbing, and I have watched every episode from both seasons.
In Season 2, 13 Reasons Why takes on the aftermath of last year's suicide, as Hannah's parents use the courtroom to seek to make her school accountable for its oversights. Hannah’s friends are witnesses in the courtroom and witnesses to their own narratives of the events leading up to her death. They try, with varying degrees of success to deal with their own emotions, feelings, and mental health challenges as they try to recover from the tragedy.
The thirteen episodes cover a wide landscape of issues - suicidal ideation, substance abuse, household violence, parental neglect, gay identity, violent ideation and actions, bullying, and sexual assault trauma. Its treatment of sexual violence is firmly rooted in the #MeToo movement. This becomes explicit later in the series in a memorable montage that unites parents' experiences with their children's experiences relating to sexual violence. Some commentators have already criticized the relatively short scenes of both female and male sexual assault as "too graphic," saying that they "had to turn their heads away" from the TV.
But isn't that the point? Sexual assault is violent and graphic. It affects both women and men. It is not gentle and easy to watch or think about. But if we turn our heads away, then we just make it worse. We refuse to acknowledge it. We fail to understand the effect it has on its victims. We make it harder for people like Jessica – who struggles the entire season to claim her own narrative of sexual assault because she sees how Hannah’s Season 2 story is inaccurately unfolding in the glare of the courtroom – to speak up. And we just make things worse.
This is, sadly, how parents and authority figures are depicted far too frequently during the season (with the notable exception of Courtney’s dads and, in time, Kevin Porter, the guidance counselor). They are clueless. And they make things worse.
There's for me a memorable moment in Episode 9, when the school principal is asked - have you even listened to the tapes (that form the basis of Season 1)? He says no; he didn't think he needed to. I suspect this is a sly stab at so many critics of the show who haven't watched it, but only read the commentaries of others.
It’s also more than that. The principal also literally tossed aside the pile of folders of the kids who needed his attention “every day” when he was given those. It was plain, dumb luck that this neglect didn’t result in a greater tragedy at the end of Season 2.
The point here isn't that the school is bad. This is fiction. The point is that the instruments of adults - schools, courtrooms, neighborhoods, detention centers, even households – often toss aside important information because it doesn’t square with their version of what reality should be. They continue to fall short in recognizing and confronting the needs of our young people.
The show is arguing that we're making their lives worse, not better, in our efforts to protect them. They don't need our protection and possessions so much as they need our active engagement with them in their lives.
Because - by failing to engage meaningfully - we're making the choices that force them into taking actions themselves - sometimes with tragic consequences.
So, the roadways to recovery are beginning to clear, and there aren’t so many threats out there at the end as there were at the beginning of the season.
That’s because 13 Reasons Why is telling us that it's okay to talk about these things; it's okay to get support from family and friends. In reaching out to seek and give help, we can make things better – and as Clay and others learn throughout, there is no protection in silence, and no glamour in tragedy.
MHA Resources for Mental Health:
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, or text MHA to 741-741 to reach a trained Crisis Counselor 24/7.
Mental Health Screens
Taking a mental health screening is one of the quickest and easiest ways to determine whether you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. There are 10 professionally-validated screens, including a Youth Screen, that are anonymous and secure. Following screening, you will be provided with information, resources and tools to discuss the results with a provider.
The 2016 Mental Health Month #mentalillnessfeelslike campaign focused on helping individuals engage in conversation as a way to let others know how life with a mental illness feels. This sharing helps build support from friends and family, reduces stigma and discrimination, and is crucial to recovery. Whether you are in Stage 1 and just learning about those early symptoms or are dealing with what it means to be in Stage 4, sharing how it feels can be part of recovery.
MHA’s Inspire Community
The Inspire community is a secure mental health support group where individuals with lived experience can interact with others, share their stories, and find support/advice. The option to remain anonymous is available.
Mental Health First Aid Training
You may know CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. You can call 911. But can you administer first aid in a mental health crisis? It’s easy to tell when someone is having a heart attack, is choking, or can’t breathe. But what does depression look like? Or anxiety? What would you say to a person you know who says they are thinking about suicide? How can you help in a panic attack? Getting trained as a Mental Health First Aider is a first step in helping you to be prepared.
13 Resources for “13 Reasons Why” by MHA President and CEO Paul Gionfriddo
Additional resources shared in the comments by viewers were catalogued in a previous blog post by MHA’s President and CEO, Paul Gionfriddo. Get the list of additional resources here.
Beyond Conversation: How Can I Take Action?
Red Flags Framework and Tool Kit for Mental Health Education
Red Flags National, a partner of Mental Health America, supports mental health education as a universal prevention strategy with a three-pronged objective: the engagement of the entire school community, the nurture of sound mental health habits and appropriate and timely intervention in the event of mental illness. A basic understanding of mental health can also significantly reduce stigma, and eventually eliminate it.
News Article: New York First State to Require Mental Health Education in Schools
MHA’s New York State Affiliate took action and advocated for mental health education to be integrated along with school curriculum. Educating students on how to cope with not only their mental health but to know the steps to support their peers are vital steps to take to prevent a crisis Before Stage 4.
The Department of Education’s School Climate Survey
The survey asks questions regarding treatment of students, social inclusion of students, whether they want to be there and how they feel about being there. The survey could be administered once a year and help school boards to determine how resources can be allocated to improve the measurements presented. It would help create an environment where the students don’t get to that point because they are happy and enjoy where they are.
Call your school administrators and the Board and recommend them to implement this important measurement in positive social and emotional skills that make both the administrators and students more mindful of how their actions can affect others in both a positive and negative way.
If you’d like to learn more about improving community mental health for K-12 children, contact Senior Policy Director Nathaniel Counts at firstname.lastname@example.org.