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13 Reasons Why Season 2: A Clinical Perspective on the Portrayal of American Teens

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by Elizabeth Weinberg, MD, and Katie Lewis, PhD

Austen Riggs Center’s Drs. Elizabeth Weinberg and Katie Lewis offer a clinical perspective on the portrayal of American teens in 13 Reasons Why Season 2. Season 2 features an unrelentingly grim teenage environment, in which every teenager is a perpetrator, a victim, or both–in which teens routinely contemplate suicide, engage in exploitative sexual relationships, and attempts to change for the better lead to disaster. While the many depictions of the difficulties that beset the teens in this series reflect issues commonly portrayed in the media, such as opiate addiction, gun violence, bullying, rape, and suicide, there remains a significant difficulty in that 13 Reasons Why seeks to inform teens and their families about these issues, yet persistently treats these issues in highly problematic ways. The sheer number and unrelenting press of graphic assaults and self-destructive actions becomes overwhelming and detracts from what otherwise might be thought-provoking material. Furthermore, although the creators of the show seem determined to show grim reality, sometimes the portrayal of characters addressing their difficulties seem remarkably unrealistic. Most problematic is the central character’s (Clay Jensen) handling of a threatened mass shooting by confronting the would-be shooter. This is unrealistic enough that the companion discussion video, 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasonscarefully recommends that viewers not imitate this behavior. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that most viewers will watch this somewhat dry discussion. 

While the trigger warnings, crisis information, and the informative discussion in 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons demonstrate that the show’s creators responded to the criticism of the first season, the writers in season 2 display some contempt for the concerns of mental health experts. For example, the show’s black-hearted school principal uses concerns about “suicide contagion” to further his attempts to suppress awareness of his school’s problems. Another scene depicting an interaction between Clay and Hannah’s mother introduces Hannah’s list of “why-not’s,” which, totaling eleven, seemingly failed to outweigh the burden of the other list for which the series is named. This interaction both oversimplifies the painful thought processes and pathways that suicidal individuals often wrestle with before engaging in actual behavior, and also unrealistically and illogically appears to ascribe equal value and meaning to both drivers and protective barriers against suicide. While the accumulation of adverse and painful experiences undoubtedly elevates risk for suicide, a growing body of research, including empirical findings from our own group, supports the idea that the development and maintenance of protective factors and a sense of meaning in life can serve as a powerful barrier against suicidal impulses, regardless of the apparent ratio of why’s to why-not’s–supporting Nietzsche’s assertion that an individual “who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’”

Season 2 has received considerably more negative reviews from film and media critics than season 1, with a score of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. While season 1 was genuinely engaging and interesting, with some sensitive treatment of its characters emotional pain, season 2 offers less reason for viewers to watch, while adding graphic violence and even more graphic sexual assault to already disturbing material. 

What the creators of the 13 Reasons Why series have succeeded in doing is portraying the lives of American teens as deeply disturbing and dystopic. Based on consumer reviews posted by teens who are drawn to the two seasons, the themes portrayed here may be both unrealistically graphic and violent to a majority of teen viewers while also being uncomfortably close to the lived experience of a subset of teens who have experienced interpersonal trauma or struggles with mental health issues. While seeking to raise awareness of these issues remains commendable, the show remains problematic in choosing to depict these situations in ways that are gratuitously violent and unempathic, significantly distorting the facts and reality-based understanding around suicide and violent acts. Despite some positive efforts, the series still fails overall to provide meaningful context for understanding suicide and violence. The show explicitly undermines the credibility of important resources, such as educators, parents, and therapists, and could provide more meaningful education about how to access resources. As long as the show seeks to promote itself as a driver of positive change for dialogue with youth–rather than as a source of (often violent) entertainment–concerns about its negative impact on vulnerable and high-risk youth populations must continue. 

The Jed Foundation has issued a guide for viewers of 13 Reasons Why, including the following recommendations: (1) if teenagers choose to watch the show that parents watch with them, (2) viewers be aware that the show is highly disturbing, and (3) viewers take breaks rather than “binge watching” the show. The Jed Foundation issued similar guidelines for season 2, but added guidelines on handling active shooter incidents, since this is a subplot of season 2. It is difficult to know what impact the topics addressed in season 2 will have on teen audiences. 

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