Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why: How does it portray teen suicide?

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This image released by Netflix shows Katherine Langford in a scene from the series, "13 Reasons Why," about a teenager who commits suicide. The stomach-turning suicide scene has triggered criticism from some mental health advocates that it romanticizes suicide and even promoted many schools across the country to send warning letters to parents and guardians. The show's creators are unapologetic, saying their frank depiction of teen life needs to be "unflinching and raw."

If you haven’t already seen or heard about the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, it is about a high school “culture” where the new “norms” include cyberbullying, sexual assault, rape, humiliation, isolation, mental health problems—and, in lead character Hannah Baker’s case, suicide. Before Hannah takes her life, she makes 13 audiocassette recordings to recount the issues that led to her decision and leaves the tapes for the people whom she considers responsible.

Opinions about 13 Reasons Why are numerous: Unrealistic? Blaming? Glamorizing? Missing the underlying seriousness of mental health problems in teenagers? In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that “teen suicide” is on our teenagers’ minds, one way or another, and needs to be on ours as well.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death…after accidents, for children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24. Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given warning signs. Approximately 4,600 young lives are lost to suicide each year. The top three methods are firearms (45 percent), suffocation (40 percent) and poisoning (8 percent). An important risk factor for suicide is a prior suicide attempt. One third of people who attempt suicide will try again within a year.

Some teens are especially vulnerable. Risk factors include:

  • Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, or a behavior problem        
  • Easy access to guns or potentially lethal medications     
  • Stressful life event or loss
  • Family history of suicide
  • Bullying  
  • LGBTQ youth

After accidents and suicide, homicide…is the third leading cause of death for children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24. Our children witness violence, including suicide, on their screens on a daily—no, hourly—basis. Approximately 4,000 studies have looked at TV’s effects on children. By the time an average child completes elementary school, this young person has seen 8,000 murders on TV, and by the end of high school this number is 40,000. By age 18, the average American has seen 200,000 acts of violence on TV.

It’s no wonder: they spend more time watching television than just about anything else except maybe (maybe) sleep. The average American high-school youth spends 1,500 hours a year watching television versus 900 hours a year in school. Here’s another startling statistic: the average child watches 1,680 minutes of television per week but spends only 3.5 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with a parent.  

My advice:

  1. Ask your teen if they have heard of 13 Reasons Why, and open up the conversation. You and your teen don’t have to have watched it to talk about it.
  2. Ask your teen if they ever have felt so badly that they wished they were not alive.  Research shows that asking them about suicide does not make them more likely to try suicide.
  3. Ask your teen about other forms of violence that may have involved them or their friends.
  4. Restrict your teen’s access to alcohol, prescription medications and firearms.
  5. Ask your teen about their friends’ access to alcohol, prescription medications and firearms. Trust me—you’re not being nosy, you’re being a responsible parent.
  6. Ask if any of your teen’s friends has talked about suicide—and to tell an adult right away, even if the friend says not to.
  7. Take all suicide attempts seriously. Every action, including superficial cutting or ingestion of a few pills, must be taken seriously because a child or adolescent might believe that the action could have caused death.
  8. Make sure your teen has a doctor who spends some one-on-one time discussing emotional health and violence exposure with them.
  9. Don’t rely exclusively on your teen’s doctor. Advocate to your teen’s school to post numbers for suicide hotlines—National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)—and counseling services.

10. Spend some time each day interacting with your teen, “checking in” through meaningful conversation (more than 3.5 minutes per week). 

11. It’s unrealistic (and too controlling) to monitor everything your teen watches on the screen.  So your only recourse is to watch TV with your teen. Go ahead… doctor’s orders. 

12. It’s also unrealistic to monitor everything your teen engages in on social media. But there are ways to become more connected, such as “friending” your teen, talking about acceptable online behavior, and using parental controls for blocking, filtering or monitoring your teen’s digital activities.

13. If an emergency arises, call 911. There’s no reason to wait, and it may be a matter of life and death.