How to Talk to Your Child About ‘13 Reasons Why’ and Teen Suicide

Thanks to a new binge-worthy show on a popular streaming site, the conversations of teen suicide, suicide prevention and mental illness have been thrust into the spotlight.

The new Netflix Original series, “13 Reasons Why,” depicts how a teenager chose to end her life after experiencing trauma and cyber bullying at the hand of classmates. Posthumously, she leaves behind 13 tapes each with a reason that ultimately lead to her decision to end her young life.

Now as parents process the graphic show themselves and more teens are discussing it, many area experts believe that although the show has a misguided representation of suicide, what it got right was bringing this conversation to the forefront.

“There is still that myth out there that talking about it will somehow trigger or give the idea of suicide to a young person,” said Heather Martinsen, behavioral health and wellness supervisor with Prince William County Community Services. “That’s completely untrue. It can’t implant that idea into someone’s head.”

The lack of conversations regarding suicide and mental health is fueled by a stigma, but the more experts and parents openly talk about it, the less stigmatized it becomes.

“The more we talk about mental health as just a part of holistic health, we can raise awareness about this in a positive way,” said Dr. Lee Beers, associate professor of pediatrics and general pediatrician at National Children’s Hospital.

The popular show was actually inspired by the 2007 best selling YA novel with the same title. In retaliation to the show, many schools are issuing statements to parents.

Due to an influx of concern from mental health experts and parents, Netflix added more content warnings before each show, and strengthened the warnings’ language.

“While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting an important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories,” said Netflix in a statement.

Because of multiple graphic scenes, the show is a trigger. Those who have experienced trauma, suicidal thoughts or self-injurious behavior, may act on their impulses as a result of watching the show.

“We don’t recommend having teenagers watch the show by themselves,” explained Martinsen, who expressed that the show was difficult for her to view. “If your teen wants to watch the show, we want parents to watch it with them, so they can start having that conversation.”

The way in which the main character’s death is portrayed and how she leaves behind tapes with explicit instructions is glamorization, said Martinsen. 

“Her leaving these tapes for her friends, really puts the responsibility on them instead of recognizing that Hannah made a choice that she didn’t have to make. There are other options in coping with life experiences instead of completing suicide.”

“The show really isn’t about mental health,” agreed Kate McCauley, psychotherapist, family coach and professor. “It’s really about revenge.”

Many teens don’t fully comprehend the permanency of suicide, continued Martinsen. They’re unable to come back and see what they left behind. Suicide is commonly linked with mental health, and it’s not based on one or two factors or a lack of coping skills. Many times “there’s a treatable mental illness present with that young person,” said Martinsen.

One in five children either currently have or at some point in their life, have suffered from a mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

If a child or teen is struggling with suicidal thoughts, depression, cyber bullying or has experienced trauma, experts agree it’s important for teens to find an adult they can trust and open up to—even if it means it’s not a parent. And, it’s parents’ responsibility to remind them of this.

“That’s something I urge parents to say to their kids,” said McCauley. “’If there is something you don’t feel comfortable talking to dad and me about, is there an adult you’d feel comfortable going to?’”

The show brings up a lot of talking points, said Kate McCauley. With these open-ended questions, the conversation can be steered away from being a lecture, and more an open conversation on high school life.

“How well does the show portray what goes on in your school? What do you think your friends are thinking about when they watched this show? When you see the different characters, are there people that you can think of that are similar to those characters?”

When it is time to have the conversations on mental health and suicide, experts agree don’t preface by saying, “We need to talk,” as your child sits in the living room or in their bedroom. Initiate the conversation in the car, or in a space where you’ll have a captive audience.

“I think the best conversations we have with our kids is not by asking them their thoughts, but to ask them about their peers,” said McCauley.  “Are kids talking about this? What are they saying? What have you heard?”

Oftentimes with these prompts, continued McCauley, teens will open up about their opinions. When asked outright about their opinions, teens often shutdown.

But, added McCauley, there probably will be some eye rolls and parents shouldn’t fear that.

“Parents need to be open-minded to any questions,” said psychotherapist and clinical social worker, Ryan Long. “And to not explain mental illness with any sort of blame or judgment, but explain it as if it were a physical illness so it is not stigmatizing.”

And ultimately, be honest, Long added. It’s ok to not know all of the answers.

Part of the conversation should also center on social media use. As the show’s main character dealt with cyber bullying and the onslaught of negative comments and interactions through social media, it’s a reminder that high school is a far different beast than it was for today’s parents.

“Just like you teach skills of how to do chores or how to do homework, it’s important to teach skills of how to use technology and engage in social media,” said Beers. Parents should not be afraid to read texts and set limitations or controls on popular social media sights, she continued.

Most importantly, it’s not one conversation. It’s a discussion that starts early and continues on throughout adolescence and into adulthood. It’s never too early to start talking about mental health.

“We want teenagers to feel safe talking to their parents and we want parents to feel comfortable talking to their teenagers about suicide and mental illness,” said Martinsen.

About WF Staff

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