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13 Reasons Why: Teen Suicide and Judaism
Moral of the Story

13 Reasons Why: Teen Suicide and Judaism

The controversial series is generating healthy discussion regarding pivotal issues, but many people should not watch it, under any circumstances.

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I am not a typical Netflix viewer; I'm just not the movie type. Besides, as a father of 8, a practicing Jew, and a super-busy psychologist, I simply don’t have the time. Yet, when asked my professional opinion amidst the recent controversy surrounding the popular series 13 Reasons Why, I signed up for a 30-day free trial subscription and binge-watched most of the series.

Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel, the series focuses on a high school student, Hannah Baker, who has recently died by suicide. Prior to her death, Hannah recorded a series of tapes detailing her path toward suicide and the individuals she holds responsible. The movie is both realistic and well-done, containing a captivating plot and compelling characters.

As a child and adolescent psychologist, I have become quite familiar with the somber realities of our age and have heard enough tales of bullying, sexual assault, and depression. Nevertheless, viewing the realistic and graphic portrayals were eye-opening, reminiscent of the Talmudic observation “one cannot compare hearing to seeing.” I also appreciated the series' apparent emphasis on highlighting the importance of kindness and inclusion and the tragic results of their absence. I hope that this series will be a springboard to generate healthy conversation and discussion regarding these relevant themes.

Its positive contributions notwithstanding, this series has generated ample controversy. Mental health professionals have expressed concern regarding showing scenes of sexual assaults in multiple flashbacks, as well as the graphic nature of the suicide scene which possibly glamorizes her death. This can potentially trigger people, especially teenagers, who have had similar experiences. Critics are also concerned of a subtle message that suicide is a way to become popular, as well as a way to get revenge. This is related to the oft-expressed concern regarding suicide contagion, the well-documented phenomenon that significant attention to suicide is associated with increases in suicide rates.

Children under 16, the emotionally fragile, and those who have experienced sexual assault or self-harm should not watch this.

In my opinion, it is best for parents to navigate a middle of the road reasonable approach. One needs to be aware of the pitfalls and simultaneously recognize the opportunity to address troubling and prevalent challenges. As such, I would recommend that the following not watch this series under any circumstances: children under 16, the emotionally fragile, and those who have experienced sexual assault or self-harm. This series will simply be too triggering for them. Similarly those of a more conservative or religious bent who seek to shield their children (and themselves) from profanity, intense sexuality, and aggression should pass this opportunity.

Mature and more liberal teenagers, on the other hand, may be able to tolerate and even grow from it, especially if viewed together with a responsible adult prepared to discuss tough issues.

These tough discussions can involve a complex interplay of themes related to morality, Judaism, and mental health. While the series emphasizes the great toll that suicide takes on loved ones, Judaism’s position is even more fundamental: it is about the sanctity of human life. While mental illness is not a justification to take one’s life, if this does occur, we assume that the person was not in control of his actions and leave the rest to God.

It is a parent's responsibility to develop an awareness of mental health challenges as well as an approach to handling them. If you are parenting a teenager, you are likely aware of the emotional ups and downs that are built in to this stage of development. However, it can be difficult to determine when it is the occasional sadness and when he or she is suffering from something more serious that necessitates immediate treatment. Two factors that may indicate greater severity include the suddenness and intensity of change.

In addition, if you find that the symptoms described below last for longer than two weeks, and if they disrupt your child’s day-to-day functioning, it may indicate something more serious. These symptoms include feeling sad, hopeless, or irritable, losing interest in activities that they used to enjoy, change in sleeping and eating habits, and trouble thinking or paying attention, even to things that they previously enjoyed. In addition to the above, those clinically depressed may think or talk about death and some have thoughts about hurting or killing themselves.

It is our parental responsibility to not ignore warning signs.

Even when an astute parent notices that a child is experiencing something more serious, the child will often not admit to it. Many depressed teenagers may not be able to express their feelings or may be embarrassed to do so. In these scenarios, it is crucial to develop a relationship with the child, which will encourage him or her to talk and will facilitate them following up on making good of the help. It is important to listen attentively when they talk and even set aside special daily to do something together and chat.

Most importantly, it is our parental responsibility to not ignore warning signs. These include irrational behavior, suicide threats (even indirect), obsession with death, writings that reference death, or overwhelming sense of guilt or rejection. If you notice any of the above, don’t try to manage them on your own. Rather, get professional help immediately. There are many evidence-based treatment options that can help. These included psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and interpersonal psychotherapy. In addition, medication can be very helpful for those experiencing depression.

 

May 6, 2017

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Daniel, May 10, 2017 2:58 AM

Why is suicide bad?

For someone who's not religious, you don't need to be mentally ill to understand that suicide is the best life choice they can make. Suffering has meaning for religious people because the reward in the next world will be worth what they go through in this world, and there is value to the refinement of the soul that a person achieves when they have emuna through dark times (and if they commit suicide, Hashem will punish them so they can't "end the pain" anyway.) For a non-religious person the suffering they experience​-whether emotional or physical-is totally meaningless and there is no value to "growth through suffering" as the growth they achieved eventually dies with their body.

(4) Kaitlyn, May 9, 2017 1:27 AM

A Perplexing and Accurate Psychological Viewpoint

I, myself, am an adolescent. I have not seen the show or read the book, but I do plan on reading it. However, this series has been a crazy sweeping across my high school and I'm not liking it. There's been a lot of discussions concerning suicide and most of it has been incorrect portrayals of suicide and what it really is. This indepth look has given me exactly what I've been looking for concerning the series. From what I've only heard, I feel that the show/book almost justifies suicide. As someone who has struggled with this and been in treatment for over the past year for it, I worry that it could influence kids into thinking suicide is okay- which it's not. I hadna friend say, "for her reasons, I can understand why". No! No matter the reason, suicide is the wrong choice. There should always something you can do. I hope the show will encourage kids to speak out and get the help they need when going through a difficult time. However, by the current looks of it, it almost seems like it justifies the act and it makes me sick. I definitely agree with us for mature people who understand that suicide is not an option, not the answer, and not a way to reach popularity or get revenge.

(3) Anonymous, May 7, 2017 11:46 PM

One size does not fit all

I have not seen the show, but I would venture to say that parents need to display sensitivity, good judgment and common sense in this instance. Without going into detail, I know of two people (adults) who committed suicide. Hearing the details of their deaths was horrible enough for me. I am also the mother of a young adult son and he too knows of someone who committed suicide. I would not even broach the topic of this show with him unless he approaches me first.

(2) zak, May 7, 2017 3:45 PM

I heard a moment

Here you have made your title: adolescent psychologist. In other words a spiritualist. For reams of theory’s and behavior concepts that have been allowed in to the sanctity of thought. For thoughts weight nothing and brings either joy or suffering into the world called reality. For all were adolescents at one time and many have been successful in their endeavors passing through the neither worlds of adolescents. In the ivory towers of manifesting reality into another world of the spirit nature of relationships, have we not seen the annihilation of the family code of moral behaviors? For some called therapists know everything but practice nothing. For they say self-termination is this and that, but have no concept as what it is they deal with. For in this world we say Psycho and Spirit have been separated, but as we surmise have the same intention of bringing union into ones focus on behaviors not acceptable by the idols of social construction. For one places measurement of age upon life, but they who have “Understanding” knows that love is the higher level therapy, for parents are the masters as they know, but give over their precious ones into the world in which behaviors are sterilize by their titles, theories, and their margins of profit. For all are children and have the greatest of needs, which is love and understanding and from where does it existence emanates from.

(1) Micky, May 7, 2017 2:49 PM

Violence in everything

Thank you for explaining both the tv series and your concerns about it. I am amazed at how much violence and sexual violence is considered normal for tv shows now. My husband and I occasionally look for shows to watch together, but virtually every show is too violent for us! And we're secular. I don't understand the need for pervasive violence in everything. So many times someone has suggested I watch a show and then casually mentions a rape or torture scene. Why would I want to watch that?

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