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13 Reasons Why:
A TV Series Prompts Discussions about Teen Suicides

June 15, 2017

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youths, ages 10 to 24. So, teens, parents, educators, and mental health experts take notice when a hugely popular TV series depicts – or “glamorizes,” as say some – a teenage girl’s suicide.

“Teens all across the country are binge-watching and talking about this series,” said Family & Children Services Behavioral Health Services Program Manager Susan Davis, L.P.C.

“Their parents need to be watching and talking with them.”

The show, titled “13 Reasons Why,” debuted March 31 on the entertainment streaming service Netflix. Based on the 2007 book of the same name, the 13-episode series follows the story of Hannah, a high school student who takes her own life in a graphic scene. Prior to her death, Hannah made a series of audio recordings that detail the 13 reasons why she decided to end her life. The tapes, detailing the events and people she holds responsible for her decision, are later sent to classmates.

While proponents of the series say the show addresses difficult topics such as depression, sexual assault, substance abuse, and bullying, some educators and suicide prevention advocates say the show glorifies suicide and doesn’t show teens who may feel suicidal constructive ways to get help.

That’s where Davis and her colleagues at Family & Children Service come in. Through a contract with Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, they operate a comprehensive, community-based Mobile Crisis Response (MCR) program offering immediate face-to-face response throughout our community including homes and school. This service is available 24/7/365, for youth in Kalamazoo County who are facing a mental health and/or substance use crisis.

In 2016, the MCR Crisis Response Program (269-373-6000 or toll free 888-373-6200) responded to 717 calls seeking support and guidance for a child heading toward or in the midst of a mental health crisis.

“The second most frequent reason for a call is to report a child or teen expressing suicide ideation,” said Davis. “This might be a young person talking about suicide or perhaps posting thoughts of suicide on social media.”

Sometimes, said Davis, the caller is a child or teen seeking help.

“That’s why ‘13 Reasons Why’ should be seen as a dramatization produced in Hollywood,” said Davis. “The takeaway message should be that suicide is never the answer to life’s challenges or adversity and help is available if you reach out even if the first person you talk to is not helpful, keep reaching out.”

Davis urges teens who are struggling with mental health issues to seek help by calling MCR or by speaking to a trusted adult about their feelings. They can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255 / https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org).

She also urges parents and other caregivers to listen and have judgement-free discussions with children about suicide, mental health, and related issues.

“Watching and talking about ‘13 Reasons Why’ with your child can be a good place start,” she said. “Especially since a second season of the show is in the works.”

Online sources are available to help frame your discussions.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (https://afsp.org) currently offers a free webinar on its website called “A Teachable Moment: Using “13 Reasons Why” to Initiate a Helpful Conversation About Suicide Prevention and Mental Health.”

The JED Foundation (https://www.jedfoundation.org) is a national nonprofit that exists to protect emotional health and prevent suicide for teens and young adults. JED partnered with Suicide Awareness Voices of America (SAVE) to develop Talking Points to help clinicians and mental health professionals discuss the show with parents, young people and news media. Netflix was supportive of the distribution of the Talking Points and posted them along with crisis services and a link to additional information about young adult mental health on the official 13RY resource website. Netflix also filmed Beyond The Reasons, as a tool to help parents and teens frame the conversation and encourage them to speak up and seek help. The show is rated TV MA and there are trigger warning cards prior to three of the episodes.

Excerpts from “13 Reasons Why” Talking Points (from the JED Foundation):

  • 13 Reasons Why is a fictional story based on a widely known novel and is meant to be a cautionary tale.
  • Suicide is never a heroic or romantic act. Hannah’s suicide (although fictional) is a cautionary tale, not meant to appear heroic and should be viewed as a tragedy.
  • When you die you do not get to make a movie or talk to people any more. Leaving messages from beyond the grave is a dramatization produced in Hollywood and is not possible in real life.
  • Suicide is not a common response to life’s challenges or adversity. The vast majority of people who experience bullying, the death of a friend, or any other adversity described in 13RW do not die by suicide. In fact, most reach out, talk to others and seek help or find other productive ways of coping. They go on to lead healthy, normal lives.
  • Talking openly and honestly about emotional distress and suicide is ok. It will not make someone more suicidal or put the idea of suicide in their mind. If you are concerned about someone, ask them about it.
  • While not everyone will know what to say or have a helpful reaction, there are people who do, so keep trying to find someone who will help you. If someone tells you they are suicidal, take them seriously and get help.
  • Knowing how to acknowledge and respond to someone who shares their thoughts of emotional distress or suicide with you is important. Don’t judge them or their thoughts. Listen. Be caring and kind. Offer to stay with them. Offer to go with them to get help or to contact a crisis line.

Signs that a teen or child is suicidal (from the National Institutes of Health):

  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
  • Irritability, frequent tantrums
  • Little or no energy
  • Self-harm, harming others
  • Isolation
  • Engages in risky behavior

13 Reasons Why