It is an unfortunate reality that bullying is a universal experience for many young people today. Whether it is physical or verbal in nature, bullying can be an extremely difficult experience, with effects that can be long lasting. Ongoing trauma and mental health issues often result from prolonged bullying.
As a child, I was bullied consistently from Kindergarten to Grade 8 in many different forms. Schoolyard cattiness evolved into malicious gossip, of which I was the target. This caused me emotional pain, resulting in extreme alienation and isolation from my peers.
I repeatedly forgave my peers for their behavior, instead of setting limits and keeping my distance from people who were relentlessly cruel to me. Once I entered high school, I resolved to never keep any verbally abusive so-called friends in my inner circle of supports again. This is a boundary I have successfully maintained for myself into adulthood.
I first encountered Jay Asher’s young adult novel 13 Reasons Why as a 16-year-old. It told the story of the life and death of Hannah Baker, a teenager who was severely bullied and sexually assaulted. Hannah subsequently made the decision to end her own life. She left behind 13 cassette tapes, each with a personal message to a person she felt had contributed to her death.
Asher’s story depicted a girl who had gone through the kind of treatment by her peers that I deeply identified with. Hannah dealt with false sexual rumors being spread about her, while I dealt with calculated mental attacks about my socio-economic status, race and physical appearance, as well as gossip and lies related to those parts of my identity. But there were profound differences in the way Hannah and I chose to deal with those emotional attacks.
The most prominent was our reaction to our adversities. I remember thinking that, as a 16-year-old first reading Asher’s book, there were far than more than 13 people who had treated me as badly as the people Hannah created tapes for. But those people were not reasons for me to want to stop living.
In high school and into my adulthood, I was able to start processing the trauma the bullying had caused. Letting go of the hatred I had for the people who had treated me badly was an important first step. Once I was able to stop obsessively thinking about how much I disliked the people who had hurt me, I was able to begin to heal. Healing for me meant forgiveness. Forgiving them was difficult, but it became easier when I realized that people usually treat others in horrible ways to mask how horrible they feel about themselves.
A particularly memorable example of this came in Grade 8 when a popular girl who had tortured me for more than seven years convinced everyone in our class not to speak or interact with me by spreading cruel gossip about me. She also tried to humiliate me by telling my crush I liked him without my permission and attempted to shame me because he didn’t like me back.
While she was screaming into my face about this boy not liking me, tears started to well up in her eyes. She was dating a boy different from my then-crush, so my liking him shouldn’t have affected her enough to elicit such a strong reaction from her. I realized then that there was a deeper issue this girl was dealing with.
Her unfortunate and immature reaction to whatever she was going through was to target me and use me as an outlet for her deeply entrenched unhappiness. Even though she was focusing her anger on me, it finally became apparent that I had nothing to do with the pain she was attempting to release in my direction.
Hannah Baker’s anger and despair led her tragically to take her own life, something done by too many young people who have been relentlessly bullied. A real-life example of this is Amanda Todd, who was bullied so badly online that she switched schools several times. She made a video that went viral after her death in which she mutely held index cards detailing her harrowing experiences of being blackmailed and bullied from school to school because of an online bully who would not stop harassing her.
The message of Amanda’s video was heartbreaking. Her pain was something she was only able to share through written words. While some may see the idea of Hannah’s tapes as similarly moving, ultimately it promotes a dangerous mindset for young people. Asher’s choice to have Hannah die by suicide and then have the tapes sent to her bullies creates a narrative that is built around the idea that the people who hurt Hannah caused her death.
Although the 13 people did in some ways contribute to hurting her deeply, attempting to get back at bullies by guilting them with what they did after dying by suicide is not a healthy mindset. Some have even argued that it supports a revenge fantasy outlook on dying by suicide. This differs from Amanda’s experience, in which she was only seeking to have her story heard, rather than blame her bully for her death.
If Hannah had been able to keep seeking support despite negative experiences in the past — reaching out to her parents and getting their help in finding a qualified therapist, for example — it’s possible she could have gained some perspective and considered other options instead of ending her life.
She could have recorded the tapes and given them to her bullies directly, so there would have been a chance to start a productive dialogue with the people who hurt her. This way, they might have realized how they had affected Hannah. Some might even have apologized and helped her begin the process of forgiveness, even if not all of the 13 people had responded positively to the tapes.
A television adaptation of 13 Reasons Why gave audiences a longer look into the lives of the people around Hannah. Each roughly 40-minute episode of the first season focused on one of the 13 people she sent tapes to. The show offered a more in-depth exploration into these 13 people and why they acted the way they did towards Hannah.
However, as with the book, Hannah’s trauma and resulting mental health issues were not explored in a context that started a helpful dialogue about therapeutic ways of dealing with bullying and trauma. The conflicting interpersonal dramas between Hannah and the 13 people before her death, and then the 13 among each other after her death when they receive the tapes, is what most of the book and show focused on. It would have been helpful to see some therapeutic and healing strategies used or discussed on a larger scale.
“Silence is ultimately what can be the most damaging element in regard to bullying, assault, mental health issues and trauma.”
The physical and sexual assaults, as well as self-harm, portrayed on the show in detail have become points of contention and controversy. Some schools and parent groups have banned or condemned the show for its explicit portrayals of these issues, labelling them as harmful and triggering for young people to see.
On Beyond the Reasons, a panel discussion show that followed the first season, Brian Yorkey, the creator of 13 Reasons Why, explained the decision to show suicide and sexual assault so explicitly was a result of the crew trying to de-romanticize these issues, not shy away from them, and portray them in the harshest light possible.
In season two, trigger warnings were added before episodes that included sexual assault. While everyone had different reactions to seeing the portrayals of these issues, I personally felt the scenes that had potentially triggering subjects in both seasons would have been hard to watch for anyone at any age, whether they had dealt with such issues personally or not.
In my opinion, especially with one assault depicted in season two, the scenes were uncomfortably graphic beyond the point of shedding a hard light on real issues. Unfortunately, these scenes moved more into the territory of sensationalism with the aim of stirring up media controversy in light of season one’s reception of similar scenes.
It is also important to examine the show’s depictions of sexual assault in the context of the #MeToo/#TimesUp movements. In a time in which survivors are speaking up and being believed more than ever before, it is crucial to have much more sensitive portrayals of traumatic situations. These representations must be carefully balanced in the realm of being honest and realistic, without veering over into harmful and exploitative realms.
While it is great that the 13 Reasons Why book and its television adaptation have sparked conversations about an issue that has been shrouded in silence in the past, I think it would have been wise for more research to have been done. Before releasing season three of a show that has already been greenlit, the producers and writing teams should consult with more first-hand survivors of varying backgrounds and conduct additional test screenings with these survivors.
It is also important to note that Jay Asher left the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2017 because he was accused of sexual harassment by some of the group’s members. Asher has denied these allegations publicly, saying that he was in a number of consensual extramarital affairs with women within the SCBWI.
Asher adds he left the group willingly and has obtained legal counsel in the hopes of having the allegations retracted. The SCBWI, meanwhile, put out a statement that he was banned for violating its harassment policy after an internal investigation.
Portrayals of bullying, assault, trauma and mental health issues that I believe are much more balanced and nuanced are shown in the work of Canadian young adult author Courtney Summers. Summers’ books Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, All the Rage and her latest, Sadie, focus on sexual assault and/or bullying and trauma.
As with 13 Reasons Why, I was first introduced to her work when I was a teen. Her depictions of bullying deeply resonated with me and I felt the tone of the difficult issues that arose in her books was representative of what teenagers actually feel and experience. Summers did not find it necessary to veer into melodramatic or needlessly graphic territories in her books.
As an aspiring teen fiction writer focusing on similar issues, I find Summers’ work serves as an aspirational guidepost in relation to setting an even keel and realistic tone for equally tough topics in my own work.
I finally got a chance to meet Courtney in person at the Young Voices Writing and Arts Fest in September, where she did a reading and Q and A for Sadie. Prior to the event, Courtney was generous enough to answer by email some questions I had about the portrayals of bullying, assault, mental health and trauma in her books.
Maya: The characters in your books often struggle with mental health and/or addiction issues and trauma. There is young adult content out there that has been criticized for depictions of these issues that are unrealistic and sometimes exploitative or dangerous. When you are writing your characters, how do you approach subjects like these in sensitive and nuanced ways?
Courtney: Whenever I sit down to write a book exploring sensitive issues and topics, I ask myself what I want or hope to contribute to the (often) ongoing and larger conversations surrounding those issues and topics. I never want to undermine those conversations or contribute something harmful to them. I do a lot of research and, in case I do not have first-hand experience regarding those critical aspects of my novels, I talk to those who do.
Maya: Bullying is a main focus of a few of your books. Your depictions of bullying are extremely realistic to some of my own school experiences and I’m sure many other young people. What advice do you have for young adults currently experiencing similar situations?
Courtney: It sounds cliche, but it’s so, so important — talk to someone. Don’t suffer in silence. Find a trusted adult or authority figure and tell them what’s happening. If that’s not an option — because unfortunately, we don’t always get the support we need and might not have a trusted adult in our lives — explore crisis support helplines and networks, like this one from Random Acts.
Maya: Sexual assault and abuse is another common theme explored in your work that resonates with many people. Are there any self-care activities that you engage in while writing work of this nature? What advice can you give young people who are struggling with these issues in terms of reaching out for help and being in recovery?
Courtney: I always give myself permission to walk away from my computer, if it starts to feel like too much. To close my Word document and spend time with people I love, doing things that make me happy. After this long in my career, I’ve gotten fairly good at compartmentalizing. But to do that, I’ve always had to make a concentrated effort to be kind to myself. My advice to young people struggling with these issues is to know they don’t have to bear it alone, to similarly be kind to themselves. To find people, a community or a space that will help support and guide them through their recovery. I realize it’s not always viable to ask for that kind of support — and the cost of doing so can be great, as the news cycle constantly reminds us — and in that case, I’d again recommend exploring crisis networks (like RAINN or Random Acts) for assistance. They need to know they’re not alone and there are a great number of people out there who believe them and want to help them through what they’re going through.
The common thread in Summers’ responses is to reach out for support, even if there are barriers preventing that from being an easy process. Silence is ultimately what can be the most damaging element in regard to bullying, assault, mental health issues and trauma. Not giving up and finding just that one person to listen is essential for young people who are struggling.
Reading or watching media for young people that address these issues head-on can help start the conversations between friends, family members, teachers or other supports like helplines or mental health professionals. While some portrayals have more work to do in terms of tone and content, I hope more writers take note of the work of authors like Summers and become more mindful of the messaging and intention of the stories they are sharing with young people.
No one should have to go through a battle alone. If you or someone you know needs help, please see the list of resources we put together just for you. If you are currently in a crisis situation, please seek immediate intervention by reaching out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Never miss a story.
Sign up and get monthly updates of our latest features.When you do, you'll receive our FREE e-book with a story-gathering checklist.