13 Reasons Why is a real opportunity to help troubled teens
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When one of my 16-year-old students suggested I watch 13 Reasons Why – the harrowing US teen drama that centres around the suicide of a 16-year-old girl – I agreed because he said it “showed what being a teenager was actually like”.I was curious. Like most parents I thought I understood what being a teenager was actually like, having been one myself. But in the ever-accelerating internet age, where social media simultaneously means a greater level of connectedness and isolation, being a teenager now is not the same experience that I had. The current generation of adolescents has a completely different set of hurdles to negotiate as they make their way through school and enter the world of adulthood. Understandably, all parents want their children to pass through this stage as unscathed as possible. Could a TV programme really help them support their offspring as they find their way? The controversial Netflix series is based upon the suicide of a girl called Hannah Baker who leaves 13 tapes, each for a specific person, explaining how each one contributed to her ending her life. The second series, which started streaming at the end of May, documents Hannah’s life as the court battle between her parents and the school, over who was responsible for her death, escalates to draw more of her contemporaries into the tale. A third season has just been announced. Focusing on the day-to-day lives of young people, it is a deeply dispiriting drama. While the problems explored may seem alien to older viewers, they are serious and very real issues for teenagers. Having watched the first series, I believe it is imperative that adults seek to genuinely understand what youngsters face, and use the publicity surrounding 13 Reasons Why to start a bigger conversation with teens about the kinds of things that affect their mental health and general well-being. The issues highlighted will horrify parents – bullying, isolation, mental illness, depression, self-harm, substance abuse, sex, rape and suicide — but these are issues that many young people are experiencing. And some parents may simply not be aware of it. Views on the programme are mixed, with some finding the scenes of suicide and rape gratuitous and overly graphic. But young people I have spoken to largely agree that this drama is representative of life as a teenager in 2018. The pain felt by characters who are self-harming, grieving over lost friends and struggling with their identity and every decision they make is clear to see. In the course of my work, one teen who lost a 14-year-old friend to suicide told me that, six years on, 13 Reasons Why helped explain all the things they had felt – something which they struggled to articulate at the time.
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