How Netflix’s new smash series is at the centre of a lively mental health debate
Move over, Romeo and Juliet.
The new Netflix blockbuster 13 Reasons Why is popularizing a youth suicide storyline, with potentially dangerous consequences. But is it a graphic and glamorized glorification of one teen’s revenge fantasy? Or a brave and unflinching social commentary on the contemporary youth suicide crisis?
Opinions are divided on the controversial smash-hit series 13 Reasons Why, which is adapted from the 2007 Jay Asher novel of the same name. Chronicling the decision of 17-year old high-school student, Hannah Baker, to end her own life, 13 Reasons Why is under fire from critics, school boards, politicians, concerned parents and mental health professionals alike.
CBC News reports that some experts are suggesting the series is “triggering for vulnerable teens” and a “primer for teen suicide” , while many others hail it as exposing the truth about the mental health struggles of high school-aged youth. Even discussing the show has been banned in some Canadian schools.
Refusing to discuss 13 Reasons Why with our teens, however, is perhaps the most dangerous scenario of all.
“The more we tiptoe around these issues, the more dangerous they become,” says Dr. Mary Ross, a registered psychologist with Copeman Healthcare Centre. Dr. Ross has more than 15 years of experience counselling people through depression, anxiety and trauma recovery. “There’s so much help available for kids who might feel hopeless or who are considering taking their own life. Anything that opens up an avenue for them to start a conversation about these issues, even 13 Reasons Why, can actually be a helpful tool.”
The crux of the issue is whether the series romanticizes suicide, in the way that the protagonist is able to enact an unrealistic form of revenge through taking her own life. Hannah suffers a series of demoralizing traumas – from sexual assault to social ostracization, and then punishes the 13 people she feels are directly responsible for causing her death by leaving them tape-recorded posthumous messages.
That the phrase “welcome to your tape” has been flippantly adopted into the lexicon of high-school students across the nation as a hallmark retort to any minor inconvenience is seen by many experts as a dangerous trend. Dr. Ross, however, isn’t so quick to jump to conclusions.
“It’s a really tricky one,” she says of the divided opinions over the show’s impact on young viewers. “There’s a documented phenomenon of suicide contagion in epidemiological studies, but the underlying issues that contribute to suicide are very complex. And it’s not as simple as watching a TV series. The glamorized portrayal of a mental health breakdown doesn’t necessarily communicate the message that suicide is a solution to teen problems.”
Suicide isn’t going away – so let’s talk about it
Data collected by Statistics Canada reveal that suicide is the second leading cause of death among youths 15-34 years old, preceded only by accidental death. The Crisis Centre of B.C. states that approximately 11 Canadians will end their own lives today, and that four out of five people who die by suicide have made at least one previous attempt to commit suicide.
The relationship between pop culture portrayals of suicide and youth is an area of particular concern. A number of peer-reviewed studies have suggested links between media contagion and suicide in youth. Nonetheless, Dr. Ross suggests that critics may be overplaying the risk 13 Reasons Why presents to its audience.
“My opinion is that watching a TV show is not necessarily going to plant a suicidal idea in someone’s head,” she says. “It presents a risk, yes. But most teenagers can quite clearly differentiate their own situation from a dramatized storyline and fictional characters, like Hannah in the show, and understand that the portrayal they’re watching doesn’t adhere to reality.”
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 800,000 suicides occur annually, precipitated by a complex combination of social, psychological, cultural and other factors. Dr. Ross explains that, in youth, there’s also a physiological piece in that hormonal changes can ramp up sensitivities, and she’s quick to point out the inherent complexity behind the decision to take one’s own life.
“We try to put everything in a really neat box, and it’s not done so easily,” she says. “So many of these factors are inextricably intertwined. What’s so dangerous about suicide is that you get a range – the kids who have been reaching out for help for a while, who are exhibiting the obvious signs, and others who don’t. That’s why it’s so critically important for us to be having these conversations with our kids.”
Talking to youths about suicide
If nothing else, 13 Reasons Why is exceptionally effective in portraying the contemporary high-school environment as a veritable battleground for teens.
“All of the teens I have spoken to are watching it, and they’re all talking to each other about it,” says Dr. Ross. “Trying to stop that creates more of a problem than just openly talking about it.”
Bullying, sexual assault, constant connectivity via cell phones and the pressures of social media can all take a horrendous toll on kids and are serious concerns that families need to discuss. A show like 13 Reasons Why provides a perfect vehicle to do so.
Dr. Ross recommends allowing teens to watch the show, and even to watch it with them, as long as parents give their children the room and space to share what they think and feel about the issues. For this reason, the Jed Foundation recently produced a list of talking points – for parents, teachers and gatekeepers – to help facilitate dialogue about 13 Reasons Why.
“There’s a fear that if you open a conversation about suicide, or ask the question, that somehow you’re planting the idea – but you’re not,” assures Dr. Ross. “The more matter of fact you are in holding these discussions, the more likely the person is able to actually share if they’re struggling with hopelessness or having suicidal thoughts.”
But thinking about suicide doesn’t necessarily predicate the action, she notes – an important distinction for concerned parents and mental health professionals.
“A lot of young people will have thoughts about it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re suicidal. Some very alarming behaviours, like self-harming and drug and alcohol usage, don’t always predicate suicidal intent either – but they do definitely indicate high levels of emotional distress. Those are things that need to be addressed.”
Dr. Ross suggests that parents can help offset some of the embarrassment and shame by sharing something that might allude to their own struggles.
“It’s so tricky for parents,” she admits. “It has to be done it in a matter-of-fact way so it doesn’t exacerbate their child’s sense of shame and embarrassment – or push them away. Above all, what’s most important is that you’re paying attention to your child – if they’re changing, if they’re not managing well, if they’re stressed. Make sure they know you’re there for them and actively offer them help.”
13 Reasons Why: the final verdict
Where was that help when Hannah needed it most? This is precisely what the majority of critics have found the most disturbing, and easily the most heartbreaking about the Netflix series: how the teens weren’t talking to people who could have offered them help.
“If teens take anything away from this series, it should be that you have to take the risk and talk to someone when you’re struggling,” says Dr. Ross. “We have to talk about it. It doesn’t mean you have to tell someone everything that’s going on… but take the risk and reach out, share that you need help. Just start the conversation in whatever way you can – talk to a friend, a parent, a teacher, a counsellor.”
Ultimately, the jury’s still out on the impact 13 Reasons Why will ultimately have on teenagers.
However, in terms of its cultural significance and artistic merit, perhaps13 Reasons Why is less socially irresponsible than purported by so many concerned critics – as long as Canadian parents and mental health professionals are utilizing this blockbuster series as a catalyst for starting some very important conversations.
“Talking about it can help prevent suicidal youth from going to the next level, which is the planning,” says Dr. Ross. “It’s absolutely crucial that we are having these discussions. And if shows like 13 Reasons Why are helping a parent talk to their child and feel a little more comfortable? That’s something I don’t see as harmful.”
Resources for youth suicide prevention
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) outlines some of the red flags for youth suicide, which include:
- Suicide threats
- Prior suicide attempts
- Making statements that indicate a desire to die
- Sudden changes in behaviour (withdrawal, apathy, moodiness)
- Depression (crying, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, hopelessness)
- Final arrangements (such as giving away personal possessions)
Dr. Ross explains that the best thing you can do if you suspect someone is suicidal is to express your concern and offer them your help – by being there to listen.
Start with a family medical doctor, she advises, who can make referrals as necessary. Psychologists and mental health professionals are other ideal resources, but they’re not always accessible to everyone.
There is also a multitude of other resources available to Canadian youth in crisis. In British Columbia, the Crisis Centre provides a youth chat, and websites like Kids Help Phone offer free web counselling for children and teens. YouthSpace.ca also connects Canadian teens in crisis to a community of volunteers who are trained to listen and support them.