November 19, 2017

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How Educators Can Respond to Mental Health Concerns Raised by “13 Reasons Why” | In the Classroom

Most teens going through a friendship breakup or a social betrayal will tell you they’ve felt despair like Hannah Baker from Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why. I remember feeling that way too when I was young. Reading the book and watching the show led me to recall some painful and embarrassing moments from middle school. Fortunately, though, my teen angst is many years behind me. I can experience the book and the Netflix series intellectually, without risking it reinforcing a damaging pattern of thinking.

My students, on the other hand, are absolutely vulnerable to its controversial portrayal of coping with depression, and there’s hard evidence to prove that now. According to a new study published by JAMA Internal Medicine, internet searches using the phrase “how to commit suicide” rose 26 percent after the debut of the TV adaptation of 13 Reasons Why. This isn’t surprising. The potential negative impact of the show has dominated debate since it aired. The conversation, however, can no longer be about potential. The study, conducted by John W. Ayers, PhD, MA and Benjamin M. Althouse PhD, validates the fears psychologists, educators, and parents initially voiced about the show.

But, what about the book? I just added it to my classroom library this past year after numerous student requests that it be purchased for independent reading. Do I now remove it in light of this new information?

After ample consideration and having followed the conversation for some time now, I have decided to keep 13 Reasons Why in my classroom. However, I firmly believe that I, and other educators, need to examine where there’s room to improve how students digest the book, especially if it’s available for selection as part of an independent reading program.

First, allow me to address why I won’t be removing it. I’m one of many English Language Arts teachers with classroom libraries in a school that houses grades six through 12. Getting rid of it in my classroom doesn’t alter a student’s ability to obtain a copy elsewhere. In addition, the book resonates with my students and speaks to the hardships of teen life. If I ban it in my classroom at the height of its popularity, I worry I’m indirectly sending a message to students that their feelings and connections to such a narrative are not allowed. In contrast, I want to keep the door open for them to voice any complex emotions related to the issues in the book or show.

Trigger label placed in copies of the book in Sawicki Bellomo’s classroom library.

The sharing of those thoughts is incredibly crucial at their age and I think any educator who has this book in their library should be thinking about how to make sure they are effectively reaching kids to have that conversation. Previously, my approach was verbal trigger warnings and a post-reading conference. If I saw students reading 13 Reasons Why or taking it out of my library, I would tell them to expect gut-wrenching scenes related to Hannah’s suicide, including the depiction of sexual assault. My warnings were usually met with a series of eye rolls and remarks on how Law and Order: SVU is much worse. Seeing that they weren’t convincing me of their maturity, they would often repeat: “Don’t worry. I can handle it.” At the book’s end, still feeling concerned, I would sit down one-on-one with readers and ask a few open-ended questions like, “What does this book leave you thinking about?” Students typically responded that it left them ruminating about why one shouldn’t commit suicide and that the book ended on a hopeful note. Once in awhile, though, a stray remark that needed further guidance would pop up like, “The suicide isn’t justified.”

That student’s word choice gives us a glimpse of the dangerous ideas that can circulate in teen minds around suicide. It implied a belief that some suicides are understandable or that there is some appropriate level of pain that warrants taking one’s life. It’s misguided. In that instance, the language that student chose needed to be unpacked further with an adult to drive home the message that suicide isn’t something we should discuss as justified or not. Instead, it’s important to use the word preventable.

In light of the new research and given the fact that my class size increases incrementally every year, I know I need to do more to reach every kid who takes the book out. To that end, I created a written trigger label for the book so I don’t miss a single student. That will be placed on the inside book jacket along with an image called “13 Reasons Why There is Hope,” which includes the number to a suicide prevention hotline. Also, I will be placing recommendations for follow-up reading, like Chicken Soup For the Teenage Soul and Chicken Soup For The Soul: Find Your Inner Strength. In fact, I might make that required reading after students pick up 13 Reasons Why.

I also plan to extend my post-reading conferences to include more experiential questions. These conversations can be tricky so I’ve brainstormed some ideas and tips.

Poster created by Central Connecticut State University, “13 Reasons Why There Is Hope.” Click to view larger.

First, start soft, with a question less personal in nature. I’d recommend focusing more on plot or the author’s craft. For instance, if the student watched the show and read the book, you could say something like: “There is more of a story line for the parents in the show. What do you think of that choice? What do you think is the intended purpose? Was it effective?” Then, begin to get more personal with questions like: “How does the school in the book/show compare to the schools you’ve attended?” or more directly, “Have you ever had experiences similar to Hannah?” If students respond in the affirmative, ask them to tell you about it. Make sure to validate their experience. Say something along the lines of: “I really admire your bravery sharing this experience and I’m sorry you went through that.” Then, based on what the student shared, take the appropriate next steps outlined by the mental health professionals at your school. For instance, if a student shared that they’ve engaged in suicidal ideation, ask them directly if they have ever made a plan. If so, do not leave that student alone. Reach out immediately to your school-based support team. If the student doesn’t share anything, end the conversation with a gentle reminder of the support network that exists in your school. Say something like, “If you’re upset over something personally or academically, who on staff do you trust to talk to? Have you reached out to them before?”

Another way to get the conversation going is running a panel discussion that includes parents, like teen librarian Robin Brenner did back in June. It’s a brilliant idea that could help schools connect with the communities they serve, and it can be much more impactful than a letter home. I think it’s important to keep the dialogue open, hopeful, and life-affirming as students grapple with their sense of value and meaning in the world. Sometimes we may have to step out of our comfort zones to do that, but it’s worth it when a child feels heard.

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Comments

  1. In a world of ever-growing safe spaces and verboten subject matter, I find your level-headed approach to teaching this book refreshing to be honest. Controversy can be a learning opportunity, if done right, as long as the risks are controlled for; after all, we are dealing with a matter of life and death. BUT as educators we have to win over hearts and minds too.

    Thanks for sharing your approach to handling this book — I will be shamelessly stealing your trigger warning label and implementing your post-reading conference recommendations in my own class :)

    Keep the columns coming!

  2. “Keep the dialogue open, hopeful, life affirming.” Very insightful article. Glad you are there for those teens Valerie.

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