West Students and Staff React to Controversy Over Thirteen Reasons Why

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By Christina Lappas

Throughout high school, bullying can be a very real problem. Whether you have seen it, partaken in it, or been a victim yourself, it happens all the time. More often than not, high school can be hard at some point for everyone, and the littlest thing can push someone to the edge. The National Day of Silence, which took place on Friday, April 21, focuses on the importance of spreading the awareness of bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Many of these issues are also showcased in the new Netflix-original series, “Thirteen Reasons Why.”

The series, based on the 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher, is about a high-school girl named Hannah Baker. She commits suicide and leaves seven cassette tape recordings behind detailing the 13 reasons why she did what she did, including being bullied, having hurtful rumors spread about her, and feeling lonely. The main character, Clay Jensen, is secretly in love with Hannah and connected with her on a very personal level. The show follows his experience listening to the tapes and seeing the hardships of her life through her eyes.

One component the show completely missed was discussing mental health in any way. It definitely got the reality of bullying down, but it missed an opportunity to use the platform of the show to talk about an aspect of what goes on in high schools that most people don’t see. People with depression or other mental illnesses often have a different perception of situations that occur in high school, and understanding the implications of our actions is crucial in ensuring that these people are not unduly harmed.

Immediately following the release of the show, high school students are stepping out and saying how the show does not depict the truth behind the life of a person who commits suicide. A Niles West student, who asked to remain anonymous, explained this opinion.

“I was most suicidal when I had the most friends, when I was skinnier, when I had the best grades. I wasn’t having suicidal thoughts because I was getting bullied, I was having suicidal thoughts because I was clinically depressed and had chemical imbalances. That’s why the show isn’t accurate — because the tapes were used more as a tool of revenge rather than an explanation of her suicide. Most people don’t kill themselves to make others feel bad. Most people who are suicidal think they’re a burden to everyone else, not the other way around,” they said.

One of West’s interning social worker, Zachary Farber, believes the show had a lot of potential but did not do a great job presenting the issues.

“I just started watching it because a lot of students have come in talking about it, so I figured it’d be best if I watched it too. From my point of view, it’s just a terrible way to create it because I think they really left a lot open and a lot unsaid and a lot of responsible ways to handle depression and anxiety, and mental health, and suicide, and all that. They had an awesome way to teach you guys the right way to go about that and they totally just swung and missed,” Farber said. “It absolutely glamorizes and romanticizes the idea. The absolutely first thing you have to do is talk to somebody. If you aren’t comfortable talking about it to us, talk to a dean, a teacher, parents. There are a few different hotlines you could call, we actually have an anonymous line that goes through the school and gets routed down to us.”

Due to the popularity of the show, The National Association of School Psychologists shared suggestions for teachers, parents, and children as they watch.

Producers for the show say they hope the series can help those who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. However, the series, which many teenagers are binge watching without adult guidance and support, is raising concerns from suicide prevention experts about the potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide,” according to the The National Association of School Psychologists. 

Others saw how the show included relevant issues in kids’ day-to-day lives.

Parent Edyta Matuszek has watched the show and observed how the story was extremely sophisticated.

“I thought it had a very interesting concept, but I feel that the important issues mentioned in the show could have been tackled better. I have older kids so I would let them watch it, but I think only mature 15-year-olds and older should watch it because it is a very intense show that deals with very serious issues,” Edyta Matuszek said.

Ever since the show came out on Netflix, people cannot seem to stop talking about it, myself included. Discussions about the show, book, and messages are being brought up anywhere and everywhere. In the middle of my English class we even briefly talked about it, but that’s how I feel it should be.

Within the past five years in our school library, out of the six printed copies and two audio-books, they have been checked out 154 times. Librarian Kelly Stallard has seen traffic for the book grow ever since the show was released.

“I’ve heard the show is really good; I heard it really does the book justice because the book is really powerful — it’s about suicide. I always like asking students which they like better and what they think, and for a lot of them, it’s been half and half. It’s been interesting because the book has been out for years and then as soon as they Netflix show came out students have been coming in here asking to check it out. I’ve definitely seen an increase in circulation for the materials as the shows come out,” she said.

Stallard also sees all of the intense emotions that stem from the book and series.

“I think the book is really interesting, the whole formatting of it, the thirteen reasons. It hits a lot of audiences, it’s a very emotional book and a lot of kids, after The Fault in Our Stars which was a really popular book, wanted a book to make them cry and since this is such a pretty deep topic it’ll make you cry. So it’s emotional, it’s also realistic and I think that there are certain things to it that everyone can relate to. It’s not really one of those girl books or boy books, it kind of hits across all lines,” Stallard said.

Reading the book was big for tons of people, and when the show came out the interest level grew. This was the case for sophomore Julia Matuszek.

“When I heard Selena Gomez was producing [the show], I was interested because I love her work. I saw a bunch of tweets about it and a bunch of memes which interested me even more, so I eventually caved in and watched it all in three days,” Julia Matuszek said.

After binge-watching the show, the plot got Julia Matuszek thinking about lots of serious issues in our society.

“I think it’s a very interesting plot with a lot of lessons that can be taken away from it, but I think it also sends a twisted message that revenge is the answer. As a show, it’s captivating and the acting is really good, it keeps you in it until the end. I think it’s a popular thing because it strikes a chord with so many people, there are so many different problems in the show that you’re bound to relate to at least one of them, especially being a teenager in high school right now.”

Starting with the first episode, knowing Clay would receive Hannah’s tapes, nothing could prepare me for the moment of seeing these characters in full-force assuming their roles. Hearing the breaks in Hannah’s voice when she would refer to an incident that occurred, or Clay’s glazed eyes as he tried to fight back his tears, brought everything into perspective. With that being said, the show’s perception of high school is not up to date in any way. If there was graffiti on walls, it would be painted over instantly, not just ignored. If a teacher got an anonymous note from a student that sounded very questionable, they’d look into it and not just ignore it.

All the characterizations throughout the show brought lots of things into a whole new point of view for sophomore Sean Eslick.

“I thought that the characters were well chosen. For example, Clay seemed like a very nervous kid, and he was anxious throughout the series. It put things into perspective by showing me that the characters could have been like other high school students that this could happen to, which makes me realize that this story isn’t something that doesn’t happen. An important aspect that the show brought out was that the signs of suicides should be recognized early. Another important aspect is to not treat women with less respect than you would treat other people,” Eslick said.

Something that could be perceived as just a joke, or harmless, really can do so much to someone. It might have not necessarily been the intention, but it’s 2017 and people need to start realizing how much of an effect every single word and action can truly have on an individual.

Junior Mary Khayel feels strongly about the serious situations that this show brings to the table.

“I read the book and watched the show. I wanted to see how they would make it real and relatable to modern high school students. I think everyone should watch it because it shows you how you should be nice to everyone else, and how to pick up on the signs of a student who may want to end their life,” she said. “Some parents think kids shouldn’t watch it because of graphic visuals of rape and bullying, but in reality, they’re going to have to learn about it at some point and see how it’s not okay.”

With that being said I do believe that this show glamorized the terrible reality of suicide. Like said before, there is no mention at all about the mental health aspect. Multitudes of people are even making jokes regarding the topic, and some even think it’s not a big deal. Multiple voices across the nation have criticized the hit show for its lack of discussion regarding the mental illness aspect of the show

Since the time the book came out in 2007, I have been obsessed. I even bought it on my phone, and from there on, I have read it a handful of times. I was able to spot the differences between the book and the show easily.

I do think that with many sensitive subjects being touched on, they should have definitely thrown in the mental health part. Even though that part was not there, the other issues that were mentioned were done in a way that really got a message across.

Despite the desire to make this show very relevant to high school students, in many ways it is not realistic. The lack of not only teacher involvement, but parental involvement in students’ lives is just not accurate. The parents are also obnoxious. Clay’s mom basically just tries to have breakfast together every morning as if that will actually do anything.

The counselor doesn’t even report what Hannah says, and if anything, he made it worse. He disregards what she says and brushes it off. He technically breaks the law by not reporting what she said as he is a state mandated reporter of any possible threat to a student life.

Guidance Counselor Ann Alegnani stresses the importance of reporting any potential harm.

“If a student were to report something to a teacher like they were going to do harm to themselves, that teacher should call that student’s counselor and then the counselor would then work with the social worker that we team with. The teacher is required by law to report, we’re all mandated reporters. You could lose your job if you don’t,” Alegnani said.

All in all, “Thirteen Reasons Why” is a powerful show with some flaws that any show is bound to encounter. It hit on key issues like bullying, sexual assault, and of course, suicide. I know I cannot wait to see if they continue onto a second season to address more issues and finish up some cliff-hangers, or if they leave it hanging just like the book did.

If you or someone you know ever needs help, please make sure to call these numbers:

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Niles West Anonymous Tip Line: 1-847-626-2841