• Article
  • August 1, 2017

Netflix Show '13 Reasons Why' Spotlights Teen Suicide

Health care providers can encourage families to talk about the issue.

By Julie Erickson, Ph.D., LP

Hannah from 13 Reasons Why

If you've had any contact with a teenager in the last several months, you are aware of the widespread attention and popularity around a recent Netflix series, "13 Reasons Why." The show, based on the novel by Jay Asher, tells the story of Hannah, a 17-year-old who dies by suicide as a result of suffering from depression, stemming from being bullied by classmates.

The series, which was renewed for a second season, chronicles Hannah's life leading up to her tragic death through a set of audiotapes she leaves behind describing the 13 experiences that contributed to her decision to end her life.

Mental health experts, parents and educators have expressed concern about the graphic content of the episodes, the misconceptions and dramatization of suicide and the mature themes presented within the series.

"13 Reasons Why" is rated TV-MA for mature audiences and may not be suitable for all adolescents, particularly young teens and those who have experienced significant depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation.

However, the accessibility of Netflix on portable electronic devices can limit much-needed parental monitoring and guidance. The show's accessibility also means many adolescents, including young and vulnerable teens, may have already watched part or all of the series by the time you are reading this.

Furthermore, the increasing popularity of the show means that those who may have chosen not to watch it are still surrounded by conversations and media coverage of the series.

Talking about suicide is hard

For personal and safety reasons, our society has a difficult time talking about suicide. There are safe messaging guidelines for the media around suicide to prevent contagion effects (in other words, copycat suicides) when they occur in the community.

Critics are concerned the messages about suicide presented in "13 Reasons Why" normalize or glamorize it as a result or option to teenage problems. Many fear these messages could lead to suicidal behavior by viewers.

Parents are often uncomfortable talking about suicide because of the myth that discussing it can plant the idea in their child's head. Or, parents can be in denial that suicide is relevant to their child. The stigma of mental illness can also affect a parent's ability to begin the conversation.

However, facilitating open communication about depression or suicidal thoughts makes it okay for teens to ask for help and seek support.

Encourage a conversation

"13 Reasons Why" has generated enormous attention and brought the topic of suicide to the forefront of popular discourse. As health care providers, we should encourage parents and teens to talk about suicide in ways they may not have before.

Because many teens are talking about, and possibly watching the series, parents can use the show as a way to connect with their child and open up communication about difficult topics.

In Minnesota, where I practice, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people. One in five teens seriously considers suicide every year. Most often, teens who die by suicide have depression, substance abuse or other mental health disorders.

Although "13 Reasons Why" portrays the outcome we all fear for teens who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, it also shares a message of the importance of teens treating one another with kindness and respect. It depicts the many ways in which teens do not know the impact of their words, actions and experiences.

Ideally, the show helps increase tolerance and acceptance among teens, with more support and help-seeking behaviors from adults.

Julie Erickson, Ph.D., LP, is a clinical psychologist specializing in adolescent health and behavior at Children's Minnesota.

 

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