How 13 Reasons Why Is Changing the Conversation about Suicide

May 25, 2017|Mental Health|
Hartgrove Hospital 13 Reasons Why

It’s hard to find a corner of the Internet where people aren’t talking about 13 Reasons Why.

This popular Netflix show, adapted from Jay Asher’s bestselling young adult novel, chronicles the life — and subsequent suicide — of high school student Hannah Baker. The story is told through a series of cassette tapes, with each side containing one of the 13 reasons why Hannah came to the decision to end her life. And those reasons include her experiences with bullying, rumor-mongering, capricious friendships, a missed love connection and sexual assault. It’s a powerful story, one part explanation and another part accusation. So it’s no surprise that the Netflix series has garnered a serious following with teens and adults alike.

But since 13 Reasons Why hit the airwaves it’s not only gotten a lot of eyeballs, it’s also come under serious scrutiny. Many worry that Hannah’s story is far too graphic for teen viewers — arguing that it glamorizes suicide and may inspire copycats. Several suicide prevention hotlines have reported an uptick in calls since the series started airing. School districts have been inspired to send out letters warning parents and families about the show’s content. Some groups are even calling for a boycott of the show outright. In response to the hullabaloo, Netflix has even added additional viewer warnings to the show’s episodes.

Theresa Reed, PsyD, a psychologist who specializes in child and adolescent counseling in Arlington, Virginia, says she’s not surprised the show is getting so much attention. And she agrees that many of the scenes depicted are quite “raw,” which can be seen as troubling.

“If kids identify with Hannah, you could see why it might be more likely for them to copy if they have similar feelings,” she says. “Because the show makes it seem like her suicide helped her get some sort of resolution.”

But given those concerns, should parents try to keep their kids from 13 Reasons Why? Bruce Cameron, MS, a licensed psychology and executive coach based in Dallas, Texas, says trying to forbid your kids from watching is likely an exercise in futility.

“With something that has this much hype, your kids are going to watch it regardless of what you say,” he says. “They’re going to find a way to stream it on their phone or watch snippets of it on others’ phones in between class periods. So finding a way to have a conscious discussion about the show, what it gets right and what it doesn’t get right about suicide, is better than just trying to put a lid on it.”

Reed says she has a “love/hate relationship” with the show. She agrees with critics that some of the show’s scenes are painfully graphic. But she argues that it could provide an opportunity for parents, guidance counselors, and other mental health professionals to open up a dialogue with kids about suicide. Cameron agrees — though he cautions that, too often, parents aren’t prepared to have those kinds of conversations with their kids, even though it’s important to have them.

“I think it’s okay to watch together — and then be upfront and talk about the episodes with your kids. You can let them know that everyone, from time to time, may have suicidal thoughts. You can say you may think that you want to escape or wish you could disappear. That’s normal for adolescence. It’s not an easy time, for quite a few reasons,” he says. “But you can also tell them, ‘If you are having those kinds of thoughts, it’s okay to talk about them. And if I can’t help you, then we can get you to someone who can, a therapist or support group, so we can get you to a better place where you don’t feel this way.’”

Reed says it also may open the door to talk to your kids about issues beyond suicide — as 13 Reasons Why also touches on several other hot-button issues including sexual assault and cyber-bullying.

“Even though some of it is extreme, these issues are some of the same things your kids may be facing at school. We can’t deny or walk away from that,” she says. “So using the episodes to ask questions like, ‘Does this kind of stuff happen in your school? Has this happened to anyone you know?’ is a good thing. It can help you gain greater awareness of what your child may be dealing with and how you can help them better cope. Having that communication piece really is key — and you can use the show to start that conversation.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is help available. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or online — or reach out to a licensed mental health professional within the Hartgrove Behavioral Health System.

Written by Kayt Sukel

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