Helping Teens and Parents Understand 13 Reasons Why

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13 Reasons Why

Whether turning on the radio or opening a news website, it seems like everywhere I turn I am hearing about the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which is based off the 2007 Jay Asher novel by the same name. Executive producers are defending the series as a cautionary tale about bullying while mental health and suicide prevention experts are warning about its possible implications. One thing is for certain: people are talking.
The premise of 13 Reasons Why is that a 17-year-old girl named Hannah Baker takes her own life, and she leaves behind a series of 13 tapes for people who she claims had some responsibility for her suicide.

Producers of the show are hoping that this show will help drive conversations about suicide. They are hoping to increase awareness and dialogue about uncomfortable topics like bullying and rape. They also highlight the roles of bystanders and the importance of speaking up if you see something going on. 13 Reasons Why also opens up viewers to the topic of suicide, which is uncomfortable but important to discuss. It shows the importance of friendships and the effects of how we treat one another.

As a social worker who counsels children and adolescents each and every day, I have a few gut reactions to this series:

1. Who should watch it? And who should avoid watching it?

The vast majority of older teens are resilient and will watch this show without major setbacks. Most older teens will find ways to cope with bullying, assault, and other life challenges. However, there is a subset of teens who are more vulnerable. It is important to note that many experts agree that this show is not recommended for vulnerable youth, especially those who already struggle with depression, anxiety, and/or thoughts of suicide. It can risk glamorizing death by suicide or showing suicide as a solution for dealing with life’s difficulties. It is important to have open conversations with older teens watching 13 Reasons Why, even if they aren’t considered vulnerable. Additionally, I would urge parents of younger teens or tweens to watch it first before deciding if your child is ready to experience the heavy themes of the show. Anyone under the age of 14 is probably too young to watch a show with such heavy themes that is presented in such a graphic nature. Parents need to consider the teen’s maturity, mood, and parental communication. If your teen is not willing to have open, difficult conversations with you, this is not an appropriate series for them to watch.

2. Is this going to be a trigger for someone who is already struggling with thoughts of suicide?

13 Reasons Why includes a graphic depiction of death by suicide, which can trigger someone who struggles with ideas of suicide. Exposure to another person’s suicide can be a risk for youth who are vulnerable.

3. How is the show depicting those left behind by suicide?

The premise of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah leaves behind tapes for 13 people whose actions she believes have led to her suicide. Those that receive the tapes are depicted as holding some responsibility for Hannah’s suicide. Though their actions may have been deplorable, it is still not their fault that she died by suicide. Suicide is no one’s fault, and it is important to keep this in mind when discussing this series. I can only imagine the emotional repercussions of being blamed for a suicide. If someone has lost a friend, loved one, or acquaintance to suicide, will watching this show make them blame themselves for that person’s death? It is incredibly important to remember that suicide is not the fault of survivors.

4. Will this create a space for conversations about suicide?

Suicide is a very uncomfortable topic that many of us avoid. This show is forcing us to have conversations, and I think that could be a very good thing. Many times parents have a hard time knowing how to talk with their teens about suicide. I think one of the most important things to remember is this: talking/asking about suicide is not going to plant the idea in your teen’s head.

5. How is the show depicting rape?

Rape can be another uncomfortable and sensitive topic to discuss, though as a society we have become better at recognizing this crime. Rape is any sexual penetration by a person without consent. While it’s true that “no” means “no,” it’s also equally true that only “yes” means “yes.” In the show, there is a scene where these lines are not clear. It is important to have conversations with your teens—both males and females—about this topic.

How should parents deal with 13 Reasons Why?

  • Ask your kids if they have watched or heard about 13 Reasons Why. Watch it with them (or catch up) and have an open dialogue with them.
  • Listen without judgment. Remove distractions and have a conversation about the series where you allow your teen to express his or her thoughts and feelings and respond without judgment.
  • Ask them if they have ever had thoughts of suicide. Asking openly about suicide provides a space for help. It does not increase risk of suicide or plant the idea in your child’s head. Look for these warning signs:
    • Threats: direct (“I want to die” or “I want to kill myself”) and indirect (“I wish I could just fall asleep and never wake up”). These might be verbal or written (via text, social media posting, etc.).
    • Giving away prized possessions
    • Preoccupation with death in conversation
    • Changes in behavior, appearance, thoughts, and feelings (including someone who is usually very sad becoming extremely happy)
    • Increased high-risk behaviors (drinking, drugs, reckless driving)
    • Social withdrawal
  • Ask if they have any friends who are exhibiting warning signs. Help to guide them on how to respond to that and how to seek help for their friends. It is important to remind your kids that this is not a secret to be kept!
  • If you are concerned about your child or one of their peers, contact your school counselor or a community mental health professional, your pediatrician or primary care physician, or you can also call a crisis intervention hotline for help.

Finally, here are a few resources:

  • THE PHONE is a 24-hour crisis hotline serving Greater Baton Rouge: (225) 934-3900.
  • Kidline is a statewide service offering crisis intervention and support along with parenting and referrals to community resources. You can call 1(800) CHILDREN or text (225) 424-1533.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national 24-hour crisis line: 1(800) 273-8255.

About Jessica Brayden, LCSW

Jessica Brayden is a licensed clinical social worker with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital Health Centers in Schools and Baton Rouge Children’s Health Project.

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