What You Need to Know About 13 Reasons - By: Karen Buckner, David Lawrence Center Director of Children’s Community Services

June 5th, 2017

13 Reasons Why, the Netflix TV series about a high school girl’s suicide, is popular with teen viewers, in spite of its dark, heavy, and controversial subject matter. Parents and mental health experts can’t agree on whether it’s appropriate for teens to watch: Does it encourage or discourage, even subliminally, self-harm and suicide?

In the series — based on the book of the same name — a girl named Hannah, who has recently taken her own life, leaves behind a series of tapes explaining the thirteen reasons she committed suicide. Turns out that each of those reasons is a person, someone who said and/or did something that hurt Hannah deeply enough to make her want to kill herself.

I first read the book Thirteen Reasons (on which the series is based) several years ago. With the recent media attention surrounding the TV series, I reread the book and watched the series. The series portrays, in graphic detail, painful events experienced by the main character and issues related to suicide, bullying, sexual assault, and other social issues.

Teenagers I talk to are saying, “It sounds like my school. This is what high school is like.” Maybe so, but mental health experts, including me, have concerns about the potential risks posed by the depiction of youth suicide. The series also highlights the main character’s struggles and the consequences of her decisions, including unintended consequences. It also depicts other characters’ life issues and struggles, and the impact of their decisions — on themselves and other people.

The central concern is that the series may be perceived as romanticizing suicide, while offering no alternatives to struggling children and teens. Children and teen viewers need support from adults to process the events and experiences depicted, and thoughts and emotions that may arise.

For children and teens who are vulnerable due to mental health issues, suicidal thoughts, or other trauma, I would urge them to not watch the show. That said, many have watched it — at home or at a friend’s — without their parents’ knowledge.

I urge parents to initiate open, nonjudgmental conversations with your kids about 13 Reasons Why. These can provide opportunities to discuss issues they may be facing, and to explore decision-making options and the consequences of choices. If needed, such conversations can lead to support and intervention. Help is available.

This is an opportunity for parents to truly listen, to take your child seriously and be willing to offer support and seek help. If your child has watched the show, here are some issues you may want to discuss:

  • The importance of treating people with kindness
  • Who students can talk to about emotional issues and suicide
  • The importance of talking to an adult when things occur that are difficult to handle

Most teens who are thinking about suicide will tell at least one other person about their distress or plans. These communications are not always direct and may be hard to recognize, so it is vital to know some of the key warning signs of suicide:

  • Suicidal threats, which can be direct (“I am going to kill myself”) or indirect (“I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up”). They can be either spoken or expressed through some other form of communication, often in online posts.
  • Giving away possessions, especially if they hold special meaning.
  • Preoccupation with death in conversation, art, or on social media.
  • Changes in behavior, appearance, hygiene, sleep, mood, or feelings.
  • Loss of or major changes in relationships and social activity.

Emotional distress — feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or of being a burden to others.

If you or someone you know are considering suicide, please get help immediately. Call 911 if it’s an emergency. Or contact our 24-Hour Emergency Services at 239-455-8500.

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