5 things to tell your child about 13 Reasons Why

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Teens are affected by what their peers do and say — and by what they see in the media. We all know this. Most of the time, it isn’t a serious problem. But when it comes to suicide, it can be a serious problem.

That’s why many parents and professionals are worried about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Based on the book by Jay Asher, it tells the story of Hannah, who kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes for the people who played a role in her decision. The worry is that the series could make some vulnerable teens consider or try suicide.

How worrisome is this?

It’s a reasonable concern. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15 to 19, just behind accidents — some of which might actually be suicides. According to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), 17.7% of high school students said they considered suicide in the previous year, 14.6% made a plan, and 8.6% tried to kill themselves.

That’s a lot of kids. And given that there are studies that show that teens are more likely to commit suicide when they hear or read about another suicide, or when a schoolmate commits suicide, it’s understandable why the Netflix series has raised alarm. Trying to stop teens from watching it is a natural response. But besides the fact that it’s hard to do that for a show mostly watched online, the better response may be to use the show to start conversations, and get educated, about suicide.

Some teens are definitely at higher risk of suicide, such as those with mental health problems, a history of abuse, a history of a previous suicide attempt, or a family history of suicide. Teens who are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning) are also at higher risk. But given that the YRBS data shows that nearly one in five high school students thinks about suicide, there’s more that comes into play. Bullying, social isolation, and stressful life events, all of which happen to Hannah in the show, can make a teen think about dying — and, as also happens in the show, parents, friends, teachers, and others can be completely unaware of how sad and desperate a teen is feeling.

It’s certainly true that adolescence is almost by definition full of angst. But it’s important to be alert to anything that increases a teen’s risk of feeling suicidal, and to any signs that a teen is very sad, angry, or isolated. Too often, we are reluctant to even to talk about suicide, when talking is exactly what we need to do.

5 points to discuss with your child

Ideally, parents should watch 13 Reasons Why with their teens, and talk about it. But if that’s not possible (or if their teens have already watched it), here are some points worth discussing:

  1. The struggles and feelings Hannah has are common. So very many teens have trouble fitting in, or experience bullying, or have relationship problems, for example. Sometimes teens can feel like they are the only ones for whom life isn’t working out. Talking about this can put it in perspective, and allow you to point out that…
  2. There are other and better solutions than suicide. As horrible as a situation might feel in the moment, there is always something that can be done, and there is always someone who can help. Things can get better — unless you are dead, in which case they can’t. However, in order to get help, you have to let someone know you need it. So…
  3. If you ever start thinking about suicide, at all, tell someone. The best “someone” is someone who can help, or help you get help, like a parent, a teacher, or your doctor. But the most important thing is to tell someone. If you don’t feel comfortable telling someone you know, there are hotlines you can call, like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255. And, of course…
  4. If someone ever says that they are thinking about suicide, take it seriously. Don’t brush it off as a joke, don’t act like it’s no big deal or just a bad day. Act like they mean it, and get them help. You should also react and get help when someone is acting sadder than usual, is isolating herself or himself more, or is otherwise acting different in a way that is worrisome. If it turns out to be nothing, they will at least know how much you care about them. Which leads to another important message…
  5. We all have the power to help — or hurt — people every day. The people around Hannah didn’t realize how much they were hurting her, or how they could have helped her. Comments and actions that seem small can be devastating; kindnesses that seem small can make all the difference. If we use this Netflix series to talk about how we are responsible for each other, and how we need to take better care of each other, it could not only help us be better people, it could save lives.

Comments:

  1. hma-net.

    Children love tradition, especially the tradition of people they love and respect. They think it’s okay to do what he does. Remember, fathers, you are raising children to be wives and husbands, parents and mothers of your grandchildren. Probably the same discipline techniques that you use with your children are most likely to be used to continue life.
    I touched on this topic at my site hma-net.blogspot.com and showed the responses of the children in it

  2. Amy

    This article, along with other informative links, were sent out to parents of our school district. And could not have come at a better time. My daughter has become the one many of her friends turn to about their suicidal feelings. I would NEVER tell her to disengage from these friends as obviously they need someone. But of course I worry about this type of weight on the shoulders of a 15 year old child and how it might affect her. I’m hopeful to find resources and information to provide her emotional support.

  3. Noa Jahn

    I am wondering why Dr. McCarthy has suppressed an important fact that the CDC reports on its website: “Suicide affects all youth, but some groups are at higher risk than others. Boys are more likely than girls to die from suicide. Of the reported suicides in the 10 to 24 age group, 81% of the deaths were males and 19% were females.” The suggested White House Council on Boys and Men would like to help struggling boys in the US. However, President Obama dismissed the idea to form this Council next to the White House Council on Women and Girls back on 2009.

  4. Mr Robert Edmund Bright.

    I have heard of the increase in young suicides for some time. I have wondered if the current paranoia about sexual exploitation has not tended to alienate adults from teens and younger children. The vast majority of adults such as myself would not exploit youngsters, but end to be afraid of being labeled as perverts if they do befriend them.
    Two generations ago, when I was a kid, I knew adults, in particular a neighbouring farmer with whom I spent a lot of my time. We were able to talk freely with such older people and discuss problems and questions about life. Has this aid to growing up been stifled with a resulting burden on the youngsters that is showing itself in the rise in drastic acts such as suicide?
    Robert Bright, UK.

    • Martin

      You might be onto something. While it is important to protect children from abuse, the fact that young people are listened to when they report abuse or potential abuse these days must make them safer. So many people these days are suspicious of adults, especially men, who work with young kids. The level of interaction between kids and adults is now less than ideal.

  5. Joyce

    Thank you. My niece shared the movie with us and it was a grim reminder of how hard those yeArs can be. We appreciate having the information to discuss suicide with our family.