Watching 13 hours about a teenage girl killing herself may not sound like the most enticing of the many choices on television these days.
Trouble is, suicide is a choice too many real-life teenagers make – which means, says Mandy Teefey, that it’s something none of us should not brush aside.
That’s why Teefey and her daughter Selena Gomez were driving forces behind “13 Reasons Why,” a new Netflix series based on the well-regarded 2007 young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher.
“The teenage years are tough,” says Teefey. “Everybody goes through a lot. I had difficult experiences. I was a teen mom. And obviously everybody responds differently.
“But any parent who thinks their child has never seen the difficult things that happen in high school is in denial.”
She acknowledges that “13 Reasons Why” telescopes teenage problems, which range from indictable crimes to first-love drama to everyday bullying that erodes the target’s sense of self-worth. In this show, all of that and more land on the shoulders of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford).
“All the things that happen with Hannah are happening at high schools around the country,” says Teefey. “For the purposes of telling this story, we have them all happen at one high school.”
The story opens shortly after Hannah has killed herself. Before that, she recorded a series of 13 cassette tapes that she arranged to circulate through a sequential list of 13 people she felt contributed to her decision.
Some of the people on her list are obviously and blatantly culpable – like Bryce, who raped her.
On the other end of that scale is Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who only wanted Hannah to be his girlfriend. He is puzzled as to why he’s included in the tape chain and much of the story focuses on his efforts to figure it out.
His inclusion ultimately illuminates a couple of important nuances that Teefey says reflect “how complicated and individual this issue can be.
“After all this started happening to Hannah, Clay wanted to be nice and help her. She pushed him away. By then, she was afraid to trust anyone.”
At the same time, Hannah’s tape reveals Clay inadvertently did or said a few small things that she found hurtful. She never told him so and she acknowledges this in the tapes, saying some of the people who hurt her didn’t know they were doing it.
In fact, suggests Teefey, those two factors reflect the difficulty and fragility of basic communication.
“Teenagers don’t know how to talk,” she says. “They say things they think are no big deal – but they are.
“Then they won’t talk at all about things that are going wrong, because they think that will make them worse, not better. Which is not true. I had a bad counselor myself, but talking with the right person can really help.”
That can start with parents, Teefey adds, and often doesn’t.
“Many parents need to listen more closely,” she says. “They may hear what their teenager is saying, but don’t give it much importance. They think, oh yeah, that happened to me, too, and I got over it.
“They need to understand that for some kids, it is important. When Hannah chops all her hair off and walks into the room, she’s telling them something, not just that she didn’t get a ‘proper’ haircut.”
Among themselves, teenagers can be cruel both through what they say and what they choose not to say. Several people on Hannah’s tape chain are complicit through silence, either not defending a friend or not speaking up about an injustice.
“Kids know what’s right and wrong,” says Teefey. “But sometimes they’re too self-involved to speak up.”
Nothing in Hannah’s story, she stresses, means that every teenager who had a bad romantic breakup is one razor blade or bottle of pills from suicide.
“I’ve been in a lot of pain myself,” she says. “And I can’t imagine doing what Hannah did. But some kids do. I’ve lost friends. While we were doing this show, we met with many parents who had lost children to suicide. It’s heartbreaking.”
The Netflix version of “13 Reasons Why” paints a wider canvas than Asher’s original text.
“Adults are barely mentioned in the book,” notes Teefey. But with 13 hours of screentime, the TV series had room to expand, so it went into the actions and reactions of adults – notably including Hannah’s mother Olivia (Kate Walsh).
Like the kids, grownups do things both admirable and questionable.
“We wanted a balance,” says Teefey. “Even with kids who did something wrong or something bad, we wanted to show why they did it. We see that Justin did some things because he was bullied into them. It’s the continuation of a cycle.”
In the end, she suggests, there’s no one place to lay the blame for teen suicide, any more than there was one incident or person that either pushed Hannah over the edge or could have saved her.
“We didn’t want her tapes to be an I-told-you-so story,” says Teefey. “She may have even started them thinking they could be therapy for her. We just don’t know, because the signs for everyone can be so different. Some teenagers seem to be fine and say nothing to anyone. Others want help.”
What “13 Reasons Why” does not do, Teefey says, is suggest that there are circumstances under which suicide is ever the answer.
“We’ve seen some shows,” she says, “where it seems almost glorified, or it’s cinematically beautiful. We didn’t want to come off like that, like you can take a handful of pills and your troubles will be over.
“That’s not an answer. It just means you’re gone.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free,
24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please
visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database