ARTICLES, I NEED HELP: TEEN SUICIDE PREVENTION
13 Experts Weigh In On ’13 Reasons Why’
On March 31, 2017, Netflix released the first season of their hit show 13 Reasons Why to much controversy.
The show revolves around a high school student, Clay Jensen, and his friend Hannah Baker, a girl who commits suicide after suffering through a string of demoralizing circumstances brought on by select individuals at her school.
In the wake of her suicide, Hannah leaves behind a box of recorded cassettes detailing the 13 reasons why she ended her life. The cassettes are then passed around to each individual who affected her, giving the viewer a deeper look into how and why these people were deemed responsible for her untimely death.
Although the show’s creators say the show isn’t meant to glamorize or endorse suicide, many teachers, parents, and mental health advocates and experts say the show has done exactly that.
But what is everyone saying? In this article, we’ve collected 13 responses and statements from mental health experts and advocates detailing the good, the bad, and the ugly surrounding the show.
Here’s what they had to say:
1) The show has probably done more harm than good
“The way things are portrayed in the media does have an effect on the way suicides can happen. This is particularly true for young people that are very vulnerable and at risk of suicide.” “When they’re exposed to images that are really graphic, really sensational, and there is nothing balancing out for them … that they can get help and that treatment works and recovery is possible … we see them actually replaying what they’ve seen.” “The show actually doesn’t present a viable alternative to suicide. The show doesn’t talk about mental illness or depression, doesn’t name those words.” “My thoughts about the series are that it’s probably done more harm than any good.”
– Dr. Dan Reidenberg, Executive Director of the nonprofit group Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.
2) Hannah is presented (wrongfully) as a winner instead of a loser
“I can see some benefits and yet I can see even more dangers that teens can have from watching this show. A struggling teen viewing this show is in danger of being influenced by the lack of any problem solving or a more proactive search for help. The message to stop teen bullying and prevent suicide is lost through Hannah’s sensationalized revenge.” “Hannah’s choice, to teen viewers, seems empowering, and she is presented as a winner instead of a loser.” “I would recommend any teen battling depression, bullying, or any form of emotional instability to stay far away from the show.”
– Nechama Finkelstein, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and specialist in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
3) 13 Reasons Why fails to address the complexity of mental illness
“Mental health issues and their effects on teens are only minimally addressed in this show. Instead, the very premise of the show is the idea that other teens ‘caused’ the main character’s suicide. By downplaying the character’s depression and lack of appropriate intervention, this show fails to address the complexity of mental illness.” “Genetic history, self-concept, biochemistry, coping strategies and access to support systems are just a few of the many factors that play into mental illness and suicidal ideation. This is why there is a critical need to help teens understand mental health more completely.”
– Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and co-star on Sex Box, WE tv.
4) The series is an opportunity to begin a dialogue
“In short, the series is an opportunity for us as parents, clinicians, counselors, teachers, school systems, and youth to begin a dialogue. It is a jumping off point and should not speak for itself. We should be mindful of our own histories and the feelings that the series drudges up in us. Perhaps our reluctance to accept the series for what it is, is our own fear of death, depression, and a sense of hopelessness. These are the very things we should be talking about, not ignoring or shutting down.”
– Amy E. Ellis, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, Assistant Professor at Albizu University and Co-Director of the Trauma Resolution & Integration Program at Nova Southeastern University.
5) If you can’t help your teen from watching the series, watch it yourself so you can start having conversations about it
“Upon initially viewing the series, I imagined that it might be a useful tool for open dialogue among teen groups that I work with. The show covers crucial topics like bullying, navigating high school relationships, and substance use. However, as it progresses, the series becomes increasingly graphic and disturbing. From rape scenes to a detailed depiction of suicide, the last few episodes led me to rule out using the show for clinical purposes. While some therapists believe that the series may be helpful in stimulating conversation among teens, I believe that it may do more harm than good. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Even under the tightest supervision, it is impossible to control what older children are viewing day-to-day. Censoring the show altogether is one option; however, if you know that your teen is crafty and curious, consider watching the show yourself and start having conversations about it.”
– Kaity Rodriguez, therapist and owner of Serenity Wellness and Therapy Services in Fairfield NJ.
6) Instead of only warning about its dangers, schools and parents should also take leadership and open discussions of the show
“Although I wish the show were much different, I do think it’s very difficult to stop kids from watching it. For that reason, it’s essential that schools take leadership and open discussions of it. I’m not seeing schools make any effort to do anything other than warn parents about its dangers.” ”Parents need to create an environment in the home where it’s safe to talk about tough things. If your child is watching the show, try to watch it with him or her. Ask questions like: “What do you take from the show? How did it make you feel? Do you think it’s realistic? Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever been bullied? Please don’t ever hesitate to tell me about it.”
– Dr. Marshall Korenblum, associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and Psychiatrist-in-Chief at the SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health.
7) The show runs contrary to everything we’ve learned about how to discuss suicide
“The issue here is we’ve learned a lot of ways to discuss youth suicide, in ways that are harmful and ways that are helpful. This show, and the way it portrays suicide, runs contrary to everything we’ve learned about how to discuss this.” “The whole show romanticizes suicide. It suggests that, in death, we can achieve a status in the eyes of our peers we never had in life. That’s just not true.”
– Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and the Director World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Mental Health Policy and Training at Dalhousie University and IWK Health Centre in Canada.
8) You could learn a lot about your child by talking to them about the show
“I would watch it if your kid is in a solid state of mental health. If you have a kid who is struggling or is some years out from a mental health issue — anyone who’s had a suicide attempt or become suicidal — they should just stay away from this show.” “Learn how to have a caring conversation. Don’t do all the talking. Ask open-ended questions like ‘What did you think of it?’ Don’t judge. And do not offer quick solutions or fixes. Listen, support, and if your child is talking about any level of stress, do not hesitate to ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts.” “Don’t assume one way or another. If a teen will just start talking about their reactions to it, I think the parent might learn a lot about both what their child took away from the show as well as their own internal thoughts about it.”
– Dr. Christin Moutier, MD, Chief Medical Officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), a leading private funder of suicide-related research.
9) It encourages kids to look at the world they live in in high school
“I don’t think that it glorifies suicide. I think the message through the tapes that a lot of teens are getting is that they need to have a good look at what happens in their social-political, sexual-political world that they live in in high school.” “There are parts of the show that are very difficult — and not just the explicit rape scenes — but just the subtlety of the bullying can be very difficult, especially if you are someone who’s experienced it.” “It’s very important to ask, ‘Do you see this happening? How often does this happen? Does it happen to you? Does it happen to somebody close to you?'” “That’s an important conversation to happen, not just with kids, but with also the adults who are around kids — teachers, principals, professionals like me, parents.”
– Dr. Kiran Pure, Ph.D., Registered Psychologist with the Nova Scotia Board of Examiners of Psychologists (NSBEP) of the Association of Psychologist in Nova Scotia, Psychologist at Dr. Kiran Pure and Associates.
10) The show evokes a broader conversation about the power of human interaction and connection
“It is very possible that provocative experiences have a desensitizing effect that makes suicidal behaviors more likely.” “I can’t say that there is a group of people that ‘shouldn’t’ watch this show. I think it is more important how people watch it, with whom, and how it is processed afterward.” “To me, this show goes far beyond the suicide narrative and evokes a broader conversation about the power of human interaction and connection. I hope that all who watch this show walk away with an appreciation for the importance of every interaction we have, however insignificant it might seem, and the importance to reach out, show interest and care for those around us.”
– Dr. Eric Beeson, Licensed Professional Counselor at Northwestern University.
11) It’s a teachable moment for students who might identify with the characters
“I felt it was a great opportunity for staff, counselors and parents to connect with their children by using it as a teachable moment.” “The girl Hannah, even though she is fictional, teens — if vulnerable and at risk — may identity with her.”
– Andrew Evangelista, Mental Health and Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Coordinator at Montclair Public Schools.
12) People who’ve struggled with self-injury should NOT watch the show
“If you struggle or have struggled with self-injury or thoughts of suicide, we would encourage you NOT to watch 13 Reasons Why. We’ve heard from many people who have chosen to avoid the show, and we applaud these folks who are choosing to prioritize their own recovery. We know this is a unique moment in pop culture, with so many people talking about 13 Reasons Why. You are certainly more important than pop culture, and we will always encourage you to put your recovery first.”
– Jamie Tworkowski, founder of the suicide prevention nonprofit To Write Love On Her Arms.
13) Kids who are known to struggle with depression should be spoken to in-depth about the show
“Had I been watching that as the vulnerable, fragile kid that I was when I was 13 or 14, I might have watched that and thought, ‘Oh, that’s the easy way out. This is going to get me the attention that I need. This is what I have to do.’ “It’s not the kind of show that I would say nobody should watch, but I think that every school right now should have an open conversation about it in health class.” “Kids should probably even be separately brought aside, as privately as possible, and spoken to about it. Any kids who are known to have depression, to have spoken to counselors or any previous suicide attempts, I think they should be very, very, very talked to in-depth about it.”
– Alexa Curtis, founder of Media Impact and Navigation for Teens, a nonprofit program that raises awareness about online bullying.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental illness crisis, call 811 for 24/7 assistance or to be put in touch with the Mental Health Crisis Line.