A Child Psychiatrist’s Personal Response to “13 Reasons Why”

If you haven’t heard yet, there is a very provocative series on Netflix right now about a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of tapes dedicated to particular people she holds responsible for her devastating act.

Just the premise of this show alone (and the book, which was its original form) is subject to much controversy among mental health professionals, parents and teens alike. I finally decided to watch it; I felt I had to because so many patients have been talking about it.

Watching it did not go well. I had many visceral responses to this series, including anger at how poorly mental health, depression and appropriate treatment were portrayed, frustration at how many missed opportunities there were for the girl to get help, and physical nausea at some of the more disturbing and frankly graphic scenes of rape and suicide.

But my overarching feeling throughout this experience was sadness. Overwhelming despondency, grief, and truly deep-ending sorrow.

I felt sadness that teenagers are still so mean to each other. I’ve been through it myself- I attended middle and high school (thankfully a long time ago)- so I know what it’s like. But I still don’t understand why. Why girls especially choose to be so horrible to each other, when we have so many other obstacles and challenges to contend with. I can’t fathom why we continue to add additional stress by tearing each other down, rather than having each other’s backs.

I felt hopelessness for rape victims, and how men continue to disrespect women, despite concerted efforts by many to raise awareness about the definition and meaning of consensual intimacy.

I also felt troubled as I thought back to my own high school years and reflected on how many kids I knew that were probably really struggling. Did I notice them? Was I aware that they were bullied? Teased? Raped? Impregnated? In a poor family dynamic? Suicidal?

Not that it was my job to save anyone.

But did I even notice? Did I pick my head up from my own self-absorbed world to see what was going on around me? Did I notice when people were being picked on? Did I stand up for them? Did I call someone to check in on them if they looked sad or down? Did I notice if a girl was dragged, half-conscious, up the stairs at a party?

I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think that I did. But maybe I didn’t.

We are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. But maybe we should at least try harder to be decent human beings.

I know there’s nothing I can do about things I might have missed in the past. But moving forward, I can pay more attention to the people around me, to look outside myself and notice others who may be struggling. To defend those who are being picked on or taken advantage of.

And I can raise my children to be cognizant of how they treat others, to stand up for their friends and disadvantaged peers, and to understand that all people deserved to be treated with respect and kindness.

I have to think if we all took more time to notice each other, then maybe, just maybe, we could make a difference.

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