What Parents Need to Know About '13 Reasons Why'

Published on 
June 13, 2017
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Over the past few months, controversy has circled over Netflix’s latest original series, “13 Reasons Why.” The show, which targets teens and young adults, focuses on a complicated topic: adolescent suicide.

Sara Sherer, PhD, a psychologist and the director of Behavioral Services in the Department of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles specializing in depression and suicidal behaviors, helps us answer some questions.

What is “13 Reasons Why”?

“13 Reasons Why” is a series started by Netflix and it follows a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leaves behind a series of audiotapes for 13 classmates and peers describing how their actions led to her decision to kill herself. Each episode focuses on one tape, recorded for a specific person, and details painful interactions and actions in which that person, along with the other 12, engaged in behaviors resulting in Hannah’s decision to take her own life.

Why have health experts focused on bringing light to this particular show?

The series has gained popularity among middle and high school students, and has attracted controversy because of its mature content. Throughout the series, there are instances of underage drinking, body shaming, sexual assault, rape and, ultimately, a graphic scene depicting Hannah’s suicide. Some of these scenes appear in flashbacks, across multiple episodes, and in great detail. Watching them may be traumatic for young viewers, and may be triggering for individuals who have had similar experiences in the past.  

A few themes that are carried throughout the series have caused concern in the health professional community.

  • The adults in Hannah’s life are seen as out of touch and unhelpful. Viewers may not realize that Hannah does not really seek help from important adults in her life, and does not share her struggles with friends and family. This may create the impression that no one could help her and her thoughts of suicide, and lead viewers struggling with similar issues to believe that no one can help them as well.
  • Hanna’s suicide is portrayed as a direct result of her friends’ behaviors, possibly leading to the conclusion that the suicide was their fault. Although Hannah’s friends and classmates’ behavior was at time cruel and unacceptable, the decision to end one’s life is a personal decision and only the person who makes that decision can be held “responsible” for it. Hannah’s friends should be held responsible for their actions, but holding them responsible for Hannah’s death and giving the impression that peers can prevent suicide or can be responsible for a friend’s suicide may put an inaccurate and heavy burden on the show’s viewers.
  • The show fails to address the fact that Hannah demonstrated clear signs of mental illness. The show documents multiple traumatic events, and symptoms of depression and PTSD. Hannah was suffering but was not able to ask for help, and her suicide is more likely to be associated with her mental illness than the actions of others.
  • There are no listings of support services or resources surrounding the original release of the series. This is especially troubling considering the likelihood that vulnerable viewers are watching it alone and may not be able to process their viewing experiences with others. (Although Episode 14 provides some listings of support services, the earlier episodes present disturbing content that calls for the information earlier.)

With all the controversy associated with the series, it does create an opportunity for an open dialog about suicide. Parents, educators and mental health providers are in a position to pose questions and have open conversations about mental health and suicide, a topic that is often difficult to raise.

How has this show “glamorized” teen suicide?

The series portrays Hannah’s suicide as the only way she could get her friends to appreciate her. After her death, her peers are thinking about her and grieving over her, and do more to recognize her than when she was alive. The series also portrays Hannah’s suicide as a way to get revenge for suffering injustice and disrespect, causing peers to “pay” for their bad behavior, results she could not achieve when she was alive. In addition, Hannah’s suicide is dramatized in great detail. As Hannah ends her life, she becomes more valued, and the story she tells ends on her terms. For vulnerable teens and young adults, this may feel like a tempting option.

What advice would you give to parents with young children who want to watch the show?

Because of graphic depictions of suicide, rape and other troubling behaviors, the National Association of School Psychologists has recommended “that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation,” not view the series. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention adds that any child who has experienced sexual assault should avoid the show as well. In addition, most middle schoolers may be too young to watch the series, as they may not be ready to process its content.

That said, don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your teenager about the Netflix series and the issues it raises. You can assume that your teen has at least heard about it from peers. Take this opportunity to talk about mental health issues and suicide, topics that are difficult for parents to bring up and discuss. A conversation about why you think your child is not ready to see this show, or a suggestion to watch it together, may help your child see you as a role model and resource when it comes to discussing difficult topics.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers these suggestions for discussing the series with adolescents:

  • Educate yourself about suicide prevention and warning signs before talking with your teen and before watching the show. 
  • Prepare yourself to the possibility that your teen may express difficult feelings, and ask difficult questions.
  • Ask open-ended questions without judgment (“What do you think of the show?”). Resist the urge to offer quick fixes or solutions to their potentially tough questions and reactions.
  • Validate and support your children’s feelings. Follow their cues. If your teen is talking about any level of distress, do not hesitate to ask about changes in mental health or suicidal thoughts. It can start with just asking, “Are you OK? Are you having thoughts of suicide?” Your questions will not increase risk or plant ideas of suicide, but rather create an opportunity to offer support.
  • Offer to watch the show with your kids if appropriate, and if you feel they can handle it.
  • Watch one episode at a time. Binge watching is not a good idea. Allow time to talk about each episode.

“13 Reasons Why” has some dangerous potential for contagion or copycat suicide. Some teens may take away a disturbing message that presents suicide as an acceptable solution. Ask your kids if they think any of their friends or classmates exhibit warning signs. Talk with them about how to seek help for their friend or classmate.

How can parents notice warning signs of suicide?

There is no single cause of suicide. Suicide often occurs when stressors exceed coping abilities, and most young people engaged in suicidal behaviors do not really want to die; they are looking for ways to end their pain. Adults should be paying attention to increase in behaviors that potentially reflect an increase in stress. Using this TV series is an effective way to discuss your concerns with your child.

A large number of people who commit suicide have given off behavioral signals, or talked about suicide prior to their death. Understanding these signs and being aware of what to do and how to respond are important prevention tactics. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program, which provides useful information about the topic and many useful resources, describes the following youth-suicide warning signs:

  • Talking about or making plans for suicide (including securing means such as pills, securing access to weapons, etc.)
  • Expressing hopelessness about the future
  • Displaying severe/overwhelming emotional pain or distress
  • Showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior, particularly in the presence of the warning signs above. Specifically, this includes significant:
    • Withdrawal from or change in social connections/situations
    • Changes in sleep (increased or decreased)
    • Anger or hostility that seems out of character or out of context
    • Recent increased agitation or irritability

How can parents help their child?

If you are a parent, or you are concerned about your child or another young person, the suicide prevention site suggests you ask yourself if your son or daughter has shown or shared any of the following: 

  • Talk about wanting to die, be dead or end one’s life, or about cutting or burning oneself
  • Feelings that things may never get better and are causing great emotional pain, or struggles dealing with a big loss in his or her life

Or is your gut telling you to be worried because they have withdrawn from everyone and everything, have become more anxious or on edge, seem unusually angry, or just don't seem normal to you?

If you fear your teen may be at risk, get professional help right away.

  • Do not leave your teen alone. 
  • Call your primary care doctor for mental health referrals.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line (text TALK to 741741); both can link you to local resources
  • If necessary, take your child to the emergency room