If you work with youth or are a parent of an adolescent, you have likely heard about the new, Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.” The popular series, based on a book with the same name, is making waves in the suicide prevention community because, while it addresses the important topic of youth suicide, it also includes some messaging and potentially damaging scenes that prevention experts are warning about.
The series follows a group of high school students as they piece together a story left behind for them via audio cassettes by their classmate Hannah Baker, who died by suicide. Without any mention of mental illness, which affects one in five adolescents, the show misses a crucial opportunity to discuss an issue that is affecting so many teenagers. The tapes reveal, among other things, that Hannah was being bullied at school.
The scene in which Hannah dies by suicide is long, detailed, graphic, and borders on glamorizing suicide. In addition, there is an unfortunate scene in which Hannah visits a counselor at school and discloses that she has been raped and is struggling. The counselor not only doesn’t offer hope, compassion, or resources, but questions her role in the rape (victim blaming), suggests she forget about it and move on, and then lets her leave his office while she is clearly distressed. It is after this meeting that she dies by suicide.
The message to teenagers seems clear: Bullying leads to suicide and seeking help is futile. This is the opposite of what suicide prevention experts have been working so hard to convey to youth, which is that suicide is a complicated issue, without one obvious and identifiable cause, and teens should reach out for help.
Screening for Mental Health’s Signs of Suicide (SOS) Prevention Programs, which are used in tens of thousands of schools across the country, teaches middle and high school students the signs and symptoms of depression and suicide risk, and how to respond. The program uses the simple and straightforward acronym ACT to convey the message, which is outlined below
Acknowledge that you are seeing warning signs and that it is serious
Care: show the person your concern
Tell a trusted adult
Be sure that the families and youth in your community, school, or college are aware that 13 Reasons Why is well regarded among teenagers and young adults, and that the messages they are getting may be confusing. Schools can address it directly with their students. Below are some guidelines for how parents can talk to their teens about youth mental health and suicide.
1. If you are struggling and reach out to an adult, he or she should take you seriously and assist you in finding help. If you talk to an adult and he or she does not help you, talk to another adult who will.
2. Suicide is not a solution to any problem. There is always hope, and no matter how awful you feel, there are many different methods to treat depression and suicidal thoughts.
3. Dying by suicide is not a way to “show someone” they have wronged you or that you are upset. It is permanent.
4. Bullying does not necessarily cause suicide. Suicide is usually caused by an underlying mental health condition such as depression. Depression is common and treatable.
5. One person’s suicide is rarely another person’s fault. Survivors of suicide do not need blame, but support. There are resources and support groups available for them.
6. No matter what the situation, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available for you, 24/7. Anyone can call 1-800-273-TALK and speak anonymously to caring experts who can help you immediately.
Despite some of its faults, 13 Reasons Why does provide insight into the cultural psyche of the 21st century American teen, and will certainly resonate with viewers. It is a good time to remind youth that depression and other mental health conditions are treatable, and that there are resources available to them.
Any youth or adults who wants to learn more about suicide prevention, or is looking for resources, can visit StopASuicide.org. This website offers vital information for teens and adults about steps to take if they themselves, or someone they know, is exhibiting signs of depression or suicide.