Suicide Prevention- How to Talk to Your Teen About '13 Reasons Why'
Updated: Feb 28
A recent series by Netflix, 13 Reasons Why, has been getting a lot of attention lately. If you haven’t heard of it yet chances are your kids have. Even better chance that your middle or high schooler has already watched (or binged) the full series. Why is this important for parents to know? The series is about a high school student that commits suicide and leaves behind recorded tapes outlining the 13 reasons why she kills herself. As the series progresses, the viewers listen to the tapes through the narrator, Clay (Hannah’s old best friend and crush) while the lives of all of the people listed on the tapes begin to unravel.
Many parents have become upset by this series because of the subject- teen suicide. While this series is not suitable for certain populations- children under the age of 13 or 14, or anyone struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide, or an unstable emotional state- for many other older teens and adults the series can help get the conversations started around suicide and the reasons that drive people to end their lives.
Let’s take a closer look at some things 13 Reasons did well, and other potential negative effects.
Negative Effects of 13 Reasons Why
Immortalizes and Glorifies the Victim
There are several reasons to pause and consider the series and its impact before watching it yourself or allowing your teen to watch it under your supervision. The first area of concern is the series portrayal of suicide in a way that immortalizes the victim. The victim, Hannah, is forever remembered and her legacy is carried on through the stories and lives of the other characters. At one point in the series Hannah’s parents even state that they want everyone to remember her name and remember her story.
While is it good to honor the lives of all people and do what we can to prevent others from following the same suicidal path, it is also important not to glamorize or immortalize the victims and the way in which they chose to end their lives. When people are immortalized and talked about after committing suicide, other teens that are vulnerable to the influence (based on their own current mental state or struggle with bullying or depression) are more likely to see suicide as a positive solution to their current concerns. When the suicide is glamorized in the media and in tv series, teens are more likely to go through with plans to kill themselves in order to have their own life glamorized (source: NY Times).
2. Suicide Clusters and Contagion
There is now enough evidence to suggest that suicide is contagious (source here) and that the more publicity and attention that is given to suicide has shown to cause suicide rates to increase by as much as 12 percent the following months. When one teen commits suicide, chances are that it will at least temporarily increase the thoughts of suicide in vulnerable teens, and influence the decision to follow through with the plan for suicide for others. Instead of using the publicity to bring attention to the harmful and hurtful effects of suicide for prevention reasons, we end up hurting more teens and losing more lives.
3. Displacement of Blame
One of the other concerns about 13 Reasons Why is that it focuses the blame on the people outlined on the tapes, and not on the victim. If you have watched the series, it is easy to agree that people can certainly influence one’s will to live and make life either very unhappy or very enjoyable. Victims of any type of harassment, bullying, or abuse can attest to the power and control that is taken from them as they often feel out of control in their lives and their ability to be happy. However, this does not mean it is someone else’s fault when a person chooses to commit suicide. We are constantly making thousands of choices every day, and the choice to end a life is always that- an individual choice.
This is not meant to take responsibility away from the perpetrators of abuse or the teens that bully others, but rather to highlight the difference between a victim choosing to end their life, and stating that others made them do it. In the series, several of the characters were very cruel and abusive towards the victim, but none of them ultimately made her kill herself. That was a decision she came up with and chose to carry out on her own. She holds responsibility for that choice, not the people she attempts to blame.
Positive Effects of 13 Reasons Why
While there are several concerns with the airing of the series on Netflix, there are a few good things to come out of watching it with your teen.
Start the Suicide Conversation
Watching the series together and then talking about each episode is a good way to start the conversation around suicide with your teen. Use your judgement when determining if your teen is stable enough to handle the graphic nature of the show, and fast forward through the scenes of sexual assault and suicide if needed. Using the episodes as conversation starters can help parents bring up the topic of suicide and use it as a measure to check in with their child.
One common misconception is that if you mention the word ‘suicide’ to your teen that now they are suddenly thinking of it and you may have planted the idea in their head. This is very untrue. Teens are either having suicidal ideation or not- you bringing up the topic will not suddenly make them consider it if they were not already. The good thing is that if you do bring it up and they say they are thinking about killing themselves- now you have the ability to intervene and stop them. Knowledge is power.
For teens that are struggling with thoughts of suicide, a safe person bringing up the topic and asking them directly usually brings about a huge amount of relief. Suicidal teens are often trying to get help before following through with their plan, and by asking them bluntly if they are thinking about killing themselves, you are giving them an opportunity to reach out for help before it is too late. Asking the blunt question also shows that you are capable of handling the answer and that you will help them. If you are unable to handle the answer or are unable to ask the direct question, get your teen in contact with someone who can (our office contact here).
2. We Can All Do Better
The highlight of the series was at the end when the main character, Clay, states that everyone let the victim (Hannah) down. This highlights the importance that we can all do to do better. We can all become more knowledgeable of the warning signs. We can all reach out to the people we see struggling or sitting alone. We can all work harder to be the happy face that others interact with, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes each day. We can all do better.
In the last tape left by Hannah before committing suicide, she talks about giving life one last chance. I can’t help but wonder how the series would have turned out if one person would have said something, noticed something, or done something different and how that could have changed the course of her life. While it was no one’s fault but Hannah’s own to end her life, all of the characters in the show let her down. They all idly stood by the sidelines and watched her repeatedly get bullied, harassed, and abused by her peers. They were all looking out for themselves, and not for each other.
That was the biggest takeaway message as I finished watching the series- we all need to do a better job of taking care of each other. Especially teens, whose lives evolve around social relationships and friendships. It’s even more important to talk to teens about the importance of helping others and lifting each other up, rather than knocking someone else down to protect ourselves. Not only do we need to stop hurting each other, but we need to start the repair process.
Continue the discussion with your teen about the series, and add in conversations about what people should have done differently. Talk with them about the importance of owning up to your mistakes and not blaming others. Talk with your teen about the harmful effects of bullying and ways to intervene if they see it happening. Encourage your teen to talk to a teacher, coach, or school counselor if there are things happening at school that the teen does not feel comfortable handling (or shouldn’t handle) on their own. If that adult doesn’t help, teach them to find someone else and to not stop until there is a solution. As we now know- it may mean the difference between life and death.
Contact our office immediately if your teen is having thoughts of suicide or struggling with depression, social acceptance, or bullying. (469) 665-9416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crisis Text Line- Text the number 741-741. Available 24/7.
National Suicide Prevention Line- 1-800-273-8255