Wednesday, May 10, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Good, bad or maybe….

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbor came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," said his neighbor."Maybe," he replied. The next day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbor again offered sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer. The next day the army came to draft young men, but seeing the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbor congratulated the farmer. "Maybe," he said.

In this story, every situation the farmer encountered was looked upon as either wonderful, or as bad luck, by the neighbor.  The Farmer, on the other hand, did not rush to judgment; what seemed like opportunities turned into challenges, and challenges turned became blessings.

We are so quick to judge situations, people, and life circumstances as good or bad, black or white. 

Unlike the farmer, we don’t find ourselves living in the space of “maybe” very often. Just take a look at social media posts, have a conversation about politics, or listen to a news story, and you easily see how quickly we can be polarized to one side or the other.  As a therapist I see extreme black and white thinking at the core of many of my clients’ symptoms and suffering.

Recently there has been a lot of heated buzz around a new Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why. Everyone seems to have a very definitive opinion one-way or the other.

As a mom of a 13-year-old girl, I admit I had a very negative initial gut reaction when she told me she was watching it. I read a few articles on how the show glorifies suicide and neglects to address mental health concerns of the main character. I also received a warning letter from our school district which led me to formulate the opinion that this was not a good thing for my 7th grader to be watching.

That being said, I also realize that controlling what she sees is not an easy task, so I decided that the best course of action was to watch the show myself.

After a few episodes I was concerned that this show portrayed Hannah (the main character who commits suicide) as a hero who successfully pulls off what could be considered a “revenge fantasy.” I saw danger in the idea that the show was show was glorifying suicide. I was also uncomfortable with the graphic rape scenes and the step-by-step portrayal of Hannah’s death.

After a few episodes, I found myself invested in the characters and noticed a shift in my perception of the show. I was enjoying the series more than I wanted to admit. I realized this show is so much more than just about suicide. When I looked closer into the complexity of each character I saw an opportunity.  By using the characters in the show I was able to start a dialogue about other topics that my middle-school-aged daughter may or may not be open to discussing otherwise, such as homophobia, self-harm (non suicidal), drinking, and sex. I was able to better understand her opinions, values and experiences around these subjects as well as address the things she, by the seventh grade, has already experienced or witnessed, such as bullying, inappropriate sexualizing, and peer betrayal.  

As a mental health professional and as a mom, I found the lack of awareness of the parents in the show, troubling, although not surprising. Mental health treatment also was pretty much non-existent throughout the series, except for a reference to prior therapy and medication by Clay, another main character.

As I began to see this show as more of an opportunity to get to learn more about my daughter and talk with her about difficult topics, I remembered my early years as a social worker.  Back in 1990’s I worked as a mental health specialist on an adolescent psychiatric inpatient hospital unit. The show My So Called Life was considered a bit controversial and tackled taboo and challenging topics like sex, drinking, drugs, and bullying, not unlike 13 Reasons Why. While working at the hospital we often showed VHS tapes of My So Called Life and then facilitated therapy discussion groups with the teens about the show. By talking about difficult and personal issues from the perspective of characters, we were able to help the teens process situations and challenges they were facing in their lives and do it from a “safer” space.

Just this week news came out that Netflix is not done with the series and will be putting out a season two of 13 Reasons Why. Before deciding if this is good or bad, I choose to look at this as an opportunity to dialogue further with my daughter.

Like most things in life, it’s neither black nor white, but a really strong maybe.

*I urge anyone reading this article who maybe experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide to reach out for help. National SuicidePrevention lifeline 1-800-273-8255.