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Mighty Blog

Talking to kids about “13 Reasons Why”

Image courtesy of Netflix
Image courtesy of Netflix

Written by Julie Erickson, LP PhD

If you have had any contact with a teenager in the past month, you are most likely aware of the widespread attention and popularity a recent Netflix series is creating. “13 Reasons Why,” is a show based on the novel by Jay Asher, which tells the story of Hannah, a 17-year-old girl who dies by suicide as a result of suffering from depression, stemming from being bullied by classmates. The series 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 that 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, increasing the popularity of the show means that individuals who may have chosen not to watch it are still surrounded by conversations and media coverage of the series.

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 that the messages about suicide presented in “13 Reasons Why” normalize it as a result or option to teenage problems, or glamorize suicide as heroic or vengeful. 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 it 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 whenever it is relevant.

“13 Reasons Why” has generated enormous attention and brought the topic to the forefront of popular discourse, providing an opportunity for 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, we encourage using the show as a means to connect with your teen and open up communication about difficult topics.

A few guidelines and tips for starting the conversation with your teen are:

  • Consider with your teen whether this is a program that is appropriate for him/her to watch and be willing to watch it together for support.
  • Talk with teens about their thoughts and feelings related to the series. Teens who watch this series will benefit from supportive adults to help process the range of topics depicted including sexual assault, substance abuse and cyber-bullying.
  • Suicide Awareness Voices of American (SAVE) and the JED Foundation have developed a list of talking points to guide parents in chatting with teens about suicide related to the dramatic series.
  • Follow-up with a discussion about mental health and signs of depression and suicide risk.
  • Ask about your teen’s mental health, experience with social stress and coping with teen issues presented in the program.
  • Set an example by making it okay to talk about suicide and suicidal thoughts.
  • Communicate that mental health treatment is available and effective.
  • Share crisis resources that are available 24/7.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people in Minnesota. 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. According to the American Psychological Association, possible warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about death, dying or giving up
  • Recent loss including the break-up of a relationship, death or parental divorce
  • Change in personality with increased sadness, anger or withdrawal
  • Change in behavior including routines at school, work, activities and home
  • Change in sleep patterns or eating habits
  • Fear of losing control including harming self
  • Low self-esteem and/or feeling worthless
  • No hope for the future

With help, suicide is preventable.

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 create an increase in tolerance and acceptance among teens, with more support and help-seeking behaviors from adults.

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please access one of the following resources:

To access mental health services for teens, contact Adolescent Health at Children’s Minnesota at 612-813-7056 or your child’s primary care provider for a mental health referral.

Dr. Julie Erickson, LP PhD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in adolescent health and behavior at Children’s Minnesota.

Dr. Julie Erickson, LP PhD; headshot
Dr. Julie Erickson, LP PhD
Rachel Patterson