3 Reasons Why We Should Be Concerned

Netflix's teen series, 13 Reasons Why, has garnered widespread media attention, as well as backlash from mental health professionals. Due to the series' controversial depiction of suicide, experts have warned that the show could pose significant health risks for some teens.  Despite calls from mental health groups to cancel the show, the series debuted this past March and gained a strong following of teen and pre-teen viewers. The series went on to became one of the most popular shows on social media and is the most tweeted show of 2017. Unfortunately, since it's premiere, there has also been a national uptick in teen self-harm, as evidenced by increased ER visits and hospitalizations. Recent events suggest that our local community has not been spared from this trend. There are more than 13 reasons why parents should be concerned about this popular teen series and the potential impact on young viewers. Out of the many reasons, there are at least three specific concerns mental health professionals want all parents to know.

Reason 1: The Contagion Effect

First and foremost, parents should be aware of the risk of suicide contagion or copycat suicides. We have substantial, existing research that suggests an increase in teen suicide attempts and completions when suicides are depicted in fictional accounts and/or reported in the news.  This is what is known as suicide contagion.  Furthermore, parents should also be aware that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-19 and that 3% of suicides are thought to be related to suicide contagion. Because of what we already know from research and experts in the field, the news is sensitive to the contagion effect and reports suicides cautiously.  Best practices in the media include limiting coverage of suicides, methods and avoidance of dramatic, graphic headlines to avoid glamorizing self-harm and prevent the contagion effect.  Additionally, social media outlets and search engines also take proactive measures and direct users to suicide prevention sites when news of a suicide occurs. 13 Reasons Why takes a vastly different approach and blatantly ignores research findings and policy on vulnerable populations and the depiction of suicide in the media.  The creators even made a choice to change the suicide method in the book to one that is more graphic in the show. This change makes the suicide more dramatic and sensationalized, as well as making the depiction all the more unethical and irresponsible.  The show's glamorized and seductive depiction, that some describe as suicide revenge fantasy, has the potential to increase self-harm and teen suicide. Many predict it is only a matter of time before we see more and more youth suicide attempts and completions. You can find additional information on the contagion effect, here. 

Reason 2: Binge Watching in Isolation Can Intensify the Risks

The second issue that parents should consider relates to how children and teens are watching TV these days and how this can further intensify the effect of a graphic show with sensitive themes. Many kids binge watch shows alone on a device, far from their parents’ awareness (this includes children as young as eight). A minor processing the content of this show without adult insight or parental awareness, especially in prolonged periods of time, is likely at an increased risk of being impacted by the show due to the overwhelming and triggering content.  Parents should be aware if their children or teens are watching the show and should view the series with them, if they permit them to watch.  Parents are encouraged to talk to their children about the show and start a discussion about mental health. 

Reason 3: The Missing Message of Treatment and Recovery

The last concern relates to the missing message of treatment in this series.  Suicide is preventable and treatable.  However, this message is lost in the series and the school counselor's response is inappropriate.  The series has been criticized for underplaying the role of treatment and portraying helpers as unhelpful.  Because the show minimizes treatment as an option, it further validates suicide as a viable option.  The missing message of treatment not only normalizes suicide, but it makes vulnerable children all the more unlikely to speak up and get help.   Parents are encouraged to talk to their children about available help, should they ever need it.  Direct, non-judgmental conversations with kids about mental health, hope and recovery have positive effects. 

What Parents CAN Do:

Before you make a decision if your child should watch the show, become more informed and watch the show yourself.  Prohibit younger children from watching the show, especially if they are tweens, young adolescents and/or emotionally vulnerable.  If you allow your child to watch the show, make sure you watch it with them.  If they have already seen it, follow up and have a discussion about the show.  Parents can find specific talking points to guide the discussion about the series on the SAVE website, save.org/13-reasons-why

Additionally, all parents of teenagers are encouraged to have a conversation with their teen about mental health, suicide and treatment. Parents can use the relevance of 13 Reasons Why to introduce a difficult topic that is often avoided. Even if your teen has not watched the show, they are likely well aware of the series from peers and social media. Use the show to facilitate a hopeful discussion. Before the conversation, learn the warning signs of suicide and educate yourself on suicide prevention and basic messages parents are encouraged share about mental health. Parents can find guides and videos on how to discuss this topic on websites such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, afsp.org/mentalhealth and the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, sptsusa.org/parents.  If you are concerned about your child's response, seek consultation from your pediatrician or a mental health professional.  In having a conversation about suicide and mental health treatment with your teen, you are giving them permission to bring the topic up in the future. Additionally the conversation can ultimately, reduce stigma and increase your child's awareness about mental health, factors that can greatly increase the chance they will reach out and seek assistance, should they ever need it. Once you have had this important conversation, you have taken a significant first step in prevention.  Although the conversation may seem uncomfortable at first, what could be more important than reducing risk of a tragedy that can impact any child and any family?   If you are suicidal, are in crisis or know someone who is, there is help.  National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK

Resources for Parents and Educators:

Tips For Parents to Talk with Their Children About 13RW & Suicide-American Foundation of Suicide Prevention

13 Reasons Why: Talking Points for Viewing and Discussing the Netflix Series-JED

Conversations to Have With Your Teens for Parents-Common Sense Media

Conversations To Have With Your Teens for Educators-Common Sense Media

Warning Signs & Risk Factors of Youth Suicide- American Academy of Suicidology

Suicide Prevention Resources: 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-8255; 

Safety Crisis Text Line - Text Start to 741 741; 

If you are in the Tampa area, the Crisis Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 813-234-1234.

Ashley Vigil-Otero