What Health Teachers Can Learn From ‘13 Reasons Why’
Editor's note: The hit Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, has both teens and adults talking right now, and since the show was just renewed for a second season, it's likely these discussions won't be going away anytime soon. Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith—a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month—explores what she learned from the show and what you need to know if it comes up in class.
By now, we've all heard about 13 Reasons Why. A large number of teens have watched it, and an even larger number of adults are concerned. In fact, this new drama depicting teen suicide has garnered warnings from school psychologists, district administrators, and government officials alike.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the content featured on 13 Reasons Why, especially the graphic how-to style depiction of the main character’s suicide. The story—which plays out like a revenge fantasy for a teen who has dealt with bullying, stress, and sexual assault—has experts rightfully speaking out about the risk for suicide contagion.
But we can’t ignore that the show is hugely popular with our students, and as health teachers, students are most likely to bring it up in our classes. The show offers a large amount of teachable moments for students and adults alike. But while we certainly don’t want to stigmatize mental health issues or sweep things under the rug, it’s important to remember that the majority of us teachers are not licensed counselors. We need to make sure we’re listening to the experts and going about these discussions in the right way.
Here are the main messages I took from the show.
1. Health curriculum needs to be more comprehensive, and it needs to happen past ninth grade.
I think we can all agree that our kids need comprehensive health education as they get into the upper grades and actually start facing many of the risk behaviors we teach them about when they’re younger. College prep shouldn’t only be academic, and a skill-based health education that teaches kids about important life skills—like decision-making, communication, and healthy behaviors—should take a priority in all of the grades.
Many of the articles written by experts about the show have brought up the importance of health education, so we should be using this as an opportunity to advocate for a more comprehensive curriculum in all of our schools.
2. Mental health and well-being needs to play a key role in health education.
Mental health has taken on a more prominent role in health education over the last several years, and it’s helped break down stigma. However, we need to make sure the lessons go even further than mental illness and focus on helping all kids maintain good mental health.
Many of the risk behaviors the kids in the show engage in before and after Hannah’s suicide are unhealthy coping skills they’re using to deal with high levels of stress. Rather than focus on a reactionary curriculum that just warns students about these risky behaviors—drug use, bullying, fighting, alcohol abuse—we should focus on prevention, helping them identify healthy ways of dealing with stress instead.
3. Sexual assault, consent, and bystander responsibility need to have a central role in sex education.
If you’re still spending two weeks going through the gory details of different STIs and not addressing consent, you’re missing an important opportunity and doing a disservice to your students. They need to understand the signs of sexual assault and they need to learn the communication skills needed to step in and stop it when they see it happen.
4. We need to pay more attention to kids that "fly under the radar"—and those who fly over it as well.
Hannah often says that she feels invisible. As teachers, we have an opportunity to make sure that doesn’t happen on our watch, as the kids who don’t draw attention to themselves are often the most in need.
On the flip side, students who are extremely visible in school—the star athletes, the class presidents—might develop a sense of entitlement that can lead them to commit crimes, including sexual assault.
5. Schools need to make social/emotional counseling as big a part of their program as college counseling.
When Hannah tries to go to her counselor for help, he’s distracted and gives her very little time and some terrible advice. As a teacher, I found this part of the show the most infuriating, as it gives kids the wrong message about coming to us for help.
We have to see what we can learn from that though, and acknowledge that many guidance counselors are overwhelmed with college admissions and just don’t have enough time to be open to students in need.
This year, our high school hired new social/emotional counselors who have nothing to do with college admissions, and they've been helping students around the clock. Just the simple fact that kids know they have someone to go to who can help them with their stress has been beneficial beyond belief. This shift to a separate counseling model is happening in schools all over, and can be especially important in communities and cultures where mental health can still carry a stigma and parents are reluctant to get their children help.
For more on how educators should handle 13 Reasons Why discussions, check out this comprehensive guide from the National Association of School Psychologists.