Bullying: The forgotten lesson in 13 Reasons Why
During the final episode of Season One of the fictional and controversial Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, the main character, high school junior Hannah Baker, requests a meeting with school counselor, Mr. Porter. She tells him she’s “lost,” and “doesn’t care about anything” anymore, and that she “needs everything to stop.” She’s a young woman sliding into the abyss of hopelessness, and the thoughts of suicide that follow.
Clever, funny, and beautiful Hannah is beleaguered by a series of personal and public calamities, most revolving around bullying and a horrific rape. The difference between the two isn’t as vast as many think. Both dehumanize their target, and include the lust for, and pleasure gained from, power, domination, and control.
Hannah Baker is confused, and at times despondent, before Porter. The fire behind her glamorous and hazel-blue eyes fades to embers. She’s still breathing, but she’s dying inside.
Before deciding to take her life, she records how, after leaving Porter’s office, she waited to see if he would throw open his dark, walnut-colored office door to pursue and rescue her. But his phone rings. Again. Concerned about Hannah, but over-worked, he takes the call instead.
“No one is coming forward to stop me” from killing herself, she says. The music at this point is ominous, but in a positive way, as if to celebrate and even glorify her ensuing suicide. The soundtrack makes her decision sound and feel heroic.
As someone who works with thousands of youth each year to diminish bullying, and tired of speaking with mothers destroyed by their child’s decision to kill themselves due at least in part to bullying, I wish that scene never appeared, because otherwise deft Hannah Baker handed agency of her life to another, a lethal mistake that some youth won’t notice.
Others aren’t responsible for our mental health. Yet at the same time, others do influence it, especially bullies, which is an important and lost message this series offers us, a series even elementary school-aged children are watching.
In addition to our current campaign to reverse the thoughts of glorifying suicide, we should also use this Netflix series as an opportunity to battle adolescent bullying, the leading cause of child abuse in our nation.
We should explain how serial targets are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide. We should reveal to children and adults how being cruel, mean and even wicked helps children gain and maintain social status, especially during the middle-school years. In an attempt to grow needed empathy, we should explain how a female serial target like Hannah is 25 times more likely to develop agoraphobia than her non-bullied peers, ruining adult lives.
In order to return the needed stigma to bullying, and get the attention of serial bullies, we should explain how they are far more likely to go to prison after graduation and abuse their future spouse and children.
But most importantly, we should use 13 Reasons Why to show how standing up to bullying represents the best in human nature by promoting the virtue of kindness, but not just any form of kindness. We must promote courageous kindness, because as the late Maya Angelou explained, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
We must tell true stories of heroic kindness bolstered by courage, the kind a young mother named Lisa told me about recently. Before graduating from high school three years ago, she noticed how a boy she didn’t really know was being bullied at lunchtime by five girls. Lisa became angry and indignant, which helped fuel her courage to invite the young man to sit with her and her friends during lunch for the remainder of the school year.
What Lisa didn’t know, until three years later after meeting the boy’s mother, was that he was planning to kill himself. He created a suicide box, which contained a cord to hang himself, a suicide note, and keepsakes that he wanted his mother to cherish. She found it in his room and tearfully confronted her son when he returned from school. He told his mother that he wasn’t going through with it. He told her about kind and courageous Lisa.
“We are the inheritors of a coarsened society…A coarse place is by definition anti-child because it is anti-innocence,” writes Peggy Noonan. I believe bullying will get worse across the nation due to our coarsening society. But it will get better in pockets of resistance. Let’s use 13 Reasons Why to grow our resistance, by creating more students like Lisa, who stand up to bullying and in the process save the lives of real-life Hannah Bakers.
Paul Coughlin is an expert witness regarding bullying and the law, a former newspaper editor and is the author of numerous books, including Raising Bully-Proof Kids. He is the Founder of The Protectors: Freedom From Bullying-Courage, Character & Leadership for Life, which provides a comprehensive and community-wide solution to adolescent bullying in schools, summer camps, faith-based organizations, and other places where bullying can be prevalent.