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How 13 Reasons Why Affects Teens Who Struggle with Mental Health

13 Reasons Why swept through culture like a flash when it first aired last year. Now that Season Two is on everyone’s “Netflix recommends” prompts—once again it is important to tackle heavy issues.

Many who are affected by the show’s topic may be asking, “Where do I get real help?” For those of us who love, care for or work with teens, young adults and their families—we may be once again asking, “How do we respond?”

Finding or providing help comes from working through four key areas:

Understand the Magnetism

No one expected 13 Reasons Why to become a cultural phenomenon when it was released last year. But it did. Viewers responded to the show by stating feelings of being validated, heard, related to and that they were given a sense of belonging. We need to stop and consider the fact that those are all extremely powerful statements given the nature of the show.

To me, this validation speaks of a hidden world inside youth culture. Perhaps issues like mental health, bullying, depression, self-harm and suicide awareness demand a bigger platform. After all, they had an intense pull when they were showcased on everyone’s screens.

For those affected: First, let me be the one to say it—your story matters. Even if you have never shared it with someone, the fact that it is something you face—matters. I encourage you to move your story forward by continuing in the conversations that 13 Reasons Why opened up. Don’t let 13 episodes be the only time you allow your struggle to have a place of belonging. There are numerous resources, groups, family members and friends who want to be with you in the hard parts of life.

For those who care for those affected: Recognize that despite its graphic nature—13 Reasons Why spoke to those who struggle. They are searching for a place of belonging. To me, that means they are looking for a place in which their messiness can surface without shame. Allowing unfiltered confusions, angst, anger and emotion to be shown without immediately stepping in to just “fix it” is something they seek. The more we lean into their world—the more they will find a place of belonging outside of a TV screen.


Understand What’s Reality and What’s Dramatization

For those affected: With the intense narrative and gripping scenes of 13 Reasons Why we need to remind ourselves of a few things. There is a distinction between the reality of crisis issues and a screenplay. Many teens and young adults face severe situations of abuse, assault, addiction, bullying, self-harm and suicidal ideation. But how those affect daily life may be different from the fast-paced narrative presented in 13 Reasons Why. When those issues happen in everyday life—it often takes many months or years for healing, restoration or justice.

For those who care for those affected: Learning the distinction between reality and dramatization takes careful processing. Your role in the life of teens and young adults is vital for them to differentiate between the helpful and harmful plot points presented in content such as 13 Reasons Why.


Recognize the Peer Effect

Teens and young adults are in a psychological phase of life in which their greatest source of identity and belonging comes not from families or adult connections—but from their peers. When peers—even ones depicted on media content—model solutions for handling extreme circumstances in negative ways—there can problems.

For those affected: Remember that while characters in 13 Reasons Why do bring up issues that occur in many people’s lives—how they handle it is rarely the best solution. Why? Because that is what moves a plot forward. But your life is more valuable than a plot. Try discussing 13 Reasons Why content in a safe place or with someone to find three moments in which the characters both did and did not choose the best solution.

For those who care for those affected: It may be difficult to want to help a young person only to discover that he or she is more drawn towards seeking help from peers. While this is a driving factor in young people’s lives—they still crave experienced guidance and mentorship. Remember that they need your wisdom and life experience to help them navigate the lasting effects of characters and peers’ choices. Your guidance is crucial and can help them win mental health and crisis issue battles.


Seek to Move the Conversation Forward

The debate between the harm and helpfulness of 13 Reasons Why continues to rage on. This article is not that fight. The truth is the show is out there whether we hate it or love it. Proponents for the show continuously state its helpfulness due to the fact it started conversations about difficult topics. I am all for starting important conversations. But what if starting a conversation is harmful if it isn’t completed?

A great deal of emotion can rise to the surface when viewing content such as 13 Reasons Why. Rising emotion isn’t an enemy—but it can be harmful if it isn’t directed in a positive way. We desperately need to have purposeful conversations about mental health issues as well as how to deal with trauma.

For those affected: Think about the spaces and places in which you can connect with trusted people on how to finish the conversation 13 Reasons Why started. Is there someone you can reach out to this week? What honest thoughts and emotions might you need to share?

For those who care for those affected: Giving teens and young adults the room to surface their messiness, confusions, and difficult questions is a great gift. Often, you will be tested to find out if you will consistently be present for them. Go through that phase knowing it isn’t rejection, but a quest to determine your character because they do want to share—but fear stands in the way. Continue to provide a space and place for conversation. Utilize an attitude of, “Tell me more.” Most teens and young adults are just looking for places and people with whom to fully share their story. Within their story—you will find places to offer hope, meaning and guidance. That is how we move the conversation forward in a positive way.


If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio: Through fifteen years as a youth worker, crisis counseling, non-profit work, mentorship and training of millennials, Cassandra Smith seeks to direct teens and young adults towards a pathway of hope. Her Processing Guide for 13 Reasons Why is now available at www.BeyondTheReasons.com

Follow her at www.ChangeYourNarrative.org and on Instagram and Facebook

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