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 Manna Minute 
Sunday, April 30 2017
13 Reasons Why - A Psychologist's Commentary - Part 1

“Everyone’s watching it.”

Especially your teens.

If you have teenagers, watching this show is a must – preferably, before they do.  I promise you, this is a realistic, scary, emotionally-drenching, and triggering series on Netflix about a girl who decides to commit suicide and then leaves audio tapes on “13 Reasons Why” she decided to do it – connecting her peers to her decision.  This series highlights how important relationships are and how vulnerable teens (and people in general) are.  As you watch it, I suggest you assess whether your child is capable of absorbing the material in a healthy manner.  If so, then watch and discuss it with them. It is a great “open door” to discussing life issues: boundaries, family, sexual trauma, bullying, respect, and coping with life to name a few.

I found a great summary on of the series, in case you want the Cliff notes.

I believe that this is an incredibly written psychological “thriller” of sorts. The way the story unfolds is dramatic, creative, and alluring.  You want to keep going to see who is on the tapes, who is “responsible” for contributing to this girl’s death. As is with many books turned movie, there are gaps in how it was originally written and how it was produced. Yes, the movie is produced to make this more glamorized, yet there are many truths from both productions that I believe need to be discussed.

In part one of this response, I’m going to de-construct each of the characters that “contributed” to Hannah’s decision to end her life, and help raise insight into the behavioral and relational issues that are often thought of as being consistent with “normal teenage angst” (within Hannah as well as her peers). Many of these “angsty” behaviors are often the beginning signs of mental and behavioral issues that need to be resolved ASAP – the sooner the intervention, the better the likelihood of life-long change.

Reader warming: If you continue to read, I will be spoiling the “drama” out of the story. If you want to have a pure experience, I encourage you to binge-watch the entire series in a day or two (yes, it’s 13 hours of your life), create your own conclusions, and then continue to read my thoughts.

Character Psychologicals

I’m presenting the characters in the order in which I see as having the most “responsibility” in Hannah’s death. Ultimately, the decision to go through with suicide is most of the time a decision that is made prior to the actual event itself, and there are many “warning signs” that lead up to the final act. This will be discussed in further detail in part two.

Hannah – Hannah is the main character. Likeable, pretty, and insecure, Hannah draws you in with her stories and connections with the rest of the gang.  She has immediate power as you know that she is dead, and her “voice from beyond” commands immediate attention and respect. Her desire is achieved – to make her peers listen to her last, dying words.

My assessment: she overtly needs power and attention. I believe that she was extremely hurt by the multitude of painful interactions by her peers, but had no concept of how to effectively manage the pain. As a result, she plans out how she will get the “last word” – but does she want her peers to understand in order to change their behavior or does she want to punish them?

One issue that is not overtly discussed in this TV series is Hannah’s serious mental illness.  She appears to struggle with several issues: Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and has elements of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). These are all medical issues, as they come from and create true physiological changes in the brain. Depression and BPD can also have genetic roots, thus creating overwhelming emotions (to the point that they feel that they will drown in them) for those who have to suffer through trauma as well.  

Signs of her Borderline Personality: moodiness; reactivity; instability in how she managed relationships; mixed messages (saying one thing while quietly hoping that the person would do the other); being passive-aggressive as to leave the audio tapes that she uses as her “voice” in gaining control and (likely) revenge on her peers; and using suicide as an option for coping with her pain. Signs of PTSD: flashbacks of previous sexual assaults, reactivity to others’ behavior, becoming numb and paralyzed while watching her friend be raped, and hyper-sensitivity to others.  Depressive symptoms also include: low self-esteem, dependency on friends to make her feel worthwhile, not being able to stand up for herself or use her voice in different situations. 

Ultimately, Hannah is the most culpable in her death as she chose to “use her voice” as her final act, versus using it to gain help.  Due to her mental health issues, however, she likely had little to no ability to sift out what was about her (and within her power and responsibility to change) and what is about others (not within her power or responsibility to change). These mental health issues provide an over-riding (and often misunderstood) reason for her suicide.

As these issues overlap, her mental health issues result in an inability to cope.  When a person is genetically predisposed to emotional and personality disorders, there is a greater sensitivity to the world around. The environmental influences then become powerful contributing factors to setting her off.  Why didn’t she talk with her mom about the sexual assaults? Why didn’t she talk to a counselor (if not the school counselor) about the inappropriate touching by three of the guys that were in her social group?  A healthier-minded teen would have hopefully discussed what had happened, hopefully with her mother, if not both of her parents. This would have given them her parents the ability to show her how much they loved her – by protecting her, which leads to an internal sense of worth. No new car or pair of shoes can top that.

I know of so many people who have survived sexual trauma and believe that there was something that they did that caused the person to violate them. When a person is assaulted, he/she is a victim. A victim is a person who is in pain and is not in control of stopping that pain (whether you yell no, whisper no, or are too stunned to say no) – if you don’t say yes, assume it is a no. There is nothing that the victim can do in the moment to stop the person who is harming you. I don’t care if you are 5, 15, or 50. One of the initial signs of trauma is that you are in shock – literally cannot move or say or do anything.  [I have personally been in two different situations as an adult and have been too stunned to say or do anything initially.  Once the situations were over, I was embarrassed, enraged, and when I finally could muster up the courage, I used my voice.]  It is a long, daunting, painful process to recover from abuse or assault. Oftentimes, the internal voice that “blames the victim” is the hardest to cope with. However, when you know without a shadow of a doubt that there are people – even one person – that completely loves you and “has your back” – you talk to them about what has happened.

This takes me to my next point…where were her parents?

Hannah’s parents – You may say, “Well, they were there. She worked for them, she helped them, and they were supportive and complimentary of her.” Yup, but they were clueless about her life. How many times did she lie, avoid, and evade her parents’ questions? This is not a blame-game here, but a “wake up and watch your kids” moment. I highly encourage you to annoy them, stalk them on social media, grill them, and get into their stuff. Don’t keep secrets about what you know about them. Teens as a whole are trying to figure out how to cope with the stressors in their lives (school, work, future, sex, etc) and make you proud of them.   

The series depicts Hannah’s mother as being overwhelmingly upset and feeling guilty for not understanding the signs of her daughter’s pain. Her parents (like most parents) were consumed (prior to her death) with the loss of income of their business, which prevented them from seeing signs of struggle in their daughter. When Hannah was entrusted with - and then loses - her parents’ bank deposit, she becomes overwhelmed with guilt. She offers to pay back the money, and her parents reject this idea.  I personally believe that if they had allowed her to pay the money back (through working it off), they would have taught her an incredible lesson of responsibility and potentially helping her be a part of the solution rather than what she believed that she was - a burden.

There are many life lessons that can be shared, in my opinion. If you are a parent and are going through rough times, sharing the issues appropriately with your child (age, time, & manner) can help your child to learn HOW to cope with life stressors. Walking with them through your issues and theirs can help them learn how to critically think about their future.

Bryce Walker (rich, spoiled, school football hero) –Bryce is the inevitable rich “jerk” that many schools have. He depicts the epitome of what “success” means - wealthy, good athlete, revered at school. He appears to be untouchable and he believes that he is. It is clear to see how he distorts and manipulates situations into his own liking, and takes what he wants without believing that he deserves any repercussion or responsibility in the matter.  Bryce, in my opinion, struggles with a narcissistic and sociopathic personality disorder. He is entitled, deceptive and has the classic “King baby” traits of the narcissist. His raping both Hannah and another character (separate occasions) show that he has no regard for them, a classic sociopathic behavior. Behind such behavior is intolerable rage and pain. He has no insight about how lonely he truly is, because he has no supervision.

Where are his parents? Simply put, they are a picture on a wall. There is a scene in which his mother hears of the suicide, asks him if he wants her to come home from her ski trip, and he tells her no. There is a distinct air of loneliness and emptiness in the home. How can a child learn to behave appropriately when there is no mentor or role model? How can there be another whole friend living in the pool house for days at a time and his parents not know it? These parents seriously should have had DFACS called on them for the lack of parenting that they displayed, despite their immeasurable bank account.

Mr. Porter (school guidance counselor) – Hannah goes to the school counselor as her “last ditch effort” to “try again” in life.  Despite the fact that I’m not so certain that Hannah had already decided her own fate, he certainly did not behave in an ethical manner. Not only did he not take her report of her peers’ “sexual misconduct” seriously, he also blamed her for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Were he an effective and ethical counselor, he nor she should have been talked out of calling the authorities as well as her parents. He clearly failed this girl, her parents, and the other kids at the school.

Another point about her conversation with Mr. Porter - Why, if Hannah sincerely wanted to get help, would she a) talk to him and not her parents, and b) tape their conversation? I am concerned that her borderline features were in play when she spoke with him.

Jessica Davis and Alex Standall (Hannah’s best friends) – Jessica and Hannah are best friends at the onset of the series, due to them both being new to the school.  Alex is added soon afterwards, as he is in the same boat. At the onset, all are happy and content. However, three soon becomes “a crowd” when Jess and Alex turn to dating.  Because of their relationship, they soon leave Hannah out in the cold. Rather than talking about it with her, they avoid and reject her – leaving her confused and hurt.

When Alex and Jessica break up, Alex turns Jessica against Hannah by putting them in opposite sections of “The List” – Hannah has the "Best Ass of the Freshman Class," Jessica has “The Worst.”  Apparently, these “lists” exist in schools – who has the best features, the worst features, who is most and least desirable, etc.  These lists are merely objectifying, which is one of the worst things that can be done to a human being.

Alex is found to have shot himself at the end of the series. This kid has a plethora of issues that develop throughout, which are a different set of issues that can drive a teen to suicide. He tends to feel that he is on the “outside” – with peers, family, and eventually with himself. He tries to find solace in becoming popular and doing what “the popular kids” do, but ultimately follows Hannah’s lead in ending his life.

Hannah makes one last ditch effort to connect with Jessica, but Jessica ends their friendship by slapping Hannah.  Hannah, still desperate for friends, attempts to connect with a series of people, but each attempt results in more pain:

Justin Foley (Hannah's first kiss) – During her Freshman year, Hannah falls for Justin. On their first date, Justin takes a picture of her coming down the slide, catching a glimpse of her underwear under her skirt. Being a coward, he shows his guy friends to see the pictures, and rumors begin that they did more than just kiss, thus making Hannah into a “slut,” which permeates the school in about 30 seconds. Her interactions with the rest of the guys in their “group” thus show the character of the guys – who is interested in sex, and who is interested in Hannah.  

Courtney Crimson (“fake friend” of Hannah) – Courtney appears to be a light in Hannah’s life, but soon turns into a nightmare. She contributes to Hannah’s “slut” reputation by kissing her and then starting rumors that Hannah had sex toys in her bedroom. Why did Courtney do this? To hide her own insecurities about being gay. Her parents were a gay male couple, and she struggled with her own sexual identity. Like many people, she deflected her own fears by projecting them onto Hannah.

Ryan (gay friend who teaches her poetry) – Ryan encourages Hannah to explore her inner depth and expression through poetry, which is one of the most healthy expressions that she develops. She shares a very intimate poem about herself and asks him not to share it in his publication. He dismisses her wishes and publishes it in her handwriting. Naturally, this leads to more ridicule for Hannah.

Marcus, Zach, Tyler, Jenny (all part of “the gang”) – Within each of their tapes, she clarifies how each of them have broken her trust and violated her boundaries. Each in their own way shows their low self-esteem, lack of respect for her boundaries, immaturity, and self-centered behaviors.

Clay – Poor kid. I really had the most compassion for him. He’s an awkward, love-sick, and good-hearted kid. Hannah literally drove him crazy, both when she was alive and when he was hearing her voice again. He truly cared about her.  As a true teenager would do, however, he didn’t really know how to use his voice in being authentic with her. There’s a lot of counseling that he needs at the end in order to cope with this seriously tragic – and life-altering – series of events. He’s the true hero in this story.

I also think that the fact that his mom was the school’s lawyer was so grossly inappropriate but obviously for Hollywood is a nice twist. However, it added a huge level of pressure on him that also pushed him away and caused more undue stress.  Were his mother more respectful of the fact that he was Hannah’s classmate, she would have had to transfer the case to another attorney in her firm.  

Tony (“Yoda” and overseer of Hannah’s final wishes) - Although he appears to be much more respectful and mature than the other kids, it’s hard to believe that he’s actually in high school. He is a good guy and friend to Clay, while encouraging Clay to continue with Hannah’s post-mortem wishes.

Skye Miller (friend of Clay’s, social rebel and caretaker role) – Skye also has her own issues, likely struggling with similar issues as Hannah, but clearly acting them out in different ways. Her hair, dress, piercings and cuts on her wrists suggest that she also struggles with dealing with emotional and mental pressures. Although we do not know as much about her other than she knows she doesn’t fit in the “in” crowd and embraces this, she is another strong support for Clay as he deals with Hannah’s decision.

All in all, there are many distinct, realistic issues within each of the characters. Each of them has their own demons to face. My suggestion to you, particularly if you are a parent, is to oversee your kids. Learn the new apps. Take time to bother them. Be present and try to help them learn how to cope with this “microwave world.” I have so much respect and compassion for parents today because there is so much that they have to manage. In turn, you do too. Like my friend said, kids today can’t come home and unwind from their day. They are often bombarded by texts, snaps, group chats, and bullying in all forms. If you have no idea how to help them manage their stressors, please, please, please ask someone.  You will be doing both yourself and them a world of good.

And please remember, earlier intervention is priceless. It could save your child’s life.

Posted by: Genie Burnett, PsyD AT 07:31 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
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