Last week I finished (binge) watching the second season of 13 Reasons Why. The show is terrifying – graphic scenes of sexual assault, repeated references to suicide and self-injury, depictions of physical violence and heroin use, and preparation for a school shooting. Frankly, it left me, someone who researches suicide prevention and has been immersed in the content of suicide and self-injury for the past 15 years (aka someone who should be able to “handle it”), feeling defeated and hopeless. Imagine how it will leave a vulnerable young adolescent feeling in its wake.
Following the initial season’s release, there were several indications that the show led to an increase in suicide-related thoughts and behaviors. Internet searches on “how to kill myself,” calls and texts to crisis hotlines, and actual visits to hospitals for suicide attempts and suicide ideations all significantly increased. And already there is evidence that viewers are being similarly affected by the show the second time around. Nancy Lublin, CEO of Crisis Text Line, confirmed that the volume of texts from kids in crisis nearly doubled the weekend after the second season was released. Thankfully, this time we can be prepared and ready to help our teens if they do watch.
While it’s often tempting with difficult issues around parenting, we should not bury our heads in the sand on this one. Instead, we should face it, eyes wide open, and allow the show’s release to lead to positive discussions and movement on important topics. The thoughts I share here are meant to first raise some arm hairs: ignoring is not the answer, and then calm that heart rate: we have power to influence the outcome this time around.
Why has the show caused so much concern?
Young kids are watching and the content is anything but childlike. 13 Reasons Why deals with very intense topics including sexual assault, suicide, self-injury, depression, substance use, and bullying in graphic and emotionally provocative ways. You see characters struggling and you feel for them. It evokes intense reactions in viewers, which good entertainment does, but it can leave vulnerable viewers at risk for increased emotional suffering and potentially increased risk for acting on that pain.
The suicide rate among adolescents has been increasing in recent years with approximately 16 suicide deaths per day in this country among 15-24 year olds. Unfortunately, teenagers do sometimes turn to suicide when suffering. Vulnerable youth are especially at risk for emulating suicidal and self-injurious behaviors. We know that presenting suicide as heroic or glamorizing it in the way this show has by having likeable characters engage in the behavior may trigger some viewers to do the same. We know from social learning theory that adolescents – especially at-risk adolescents – model what they see others do; particularly if the “other” is someone they look up to and that person is rewarded for their behavior.
Suicide is depicted as something that is not necessarily final. First, Hannah, who killed herself at the end of season one, continues to appear throughout the entirety of season two as a sort of ghost. Second, Alex, the boy who shot himself in the head at the end of season one, survives and, although he suffers some physical and mental consequences, looks the same and is back at school with his old friends. People who kill themselves do not come back as ghosts and people who shoot themselves in the head do not usually survive.
Throughout the entire show, kids find themselves in difficult situations and repeatedly fail to reach out to caring, responsible adults. Instead they take matters into their own hands and make things much worse. Further, when the kids do turn to an adult for help, the adult usually fails to come through. Rarely does the show model what we want our kids to believe; when you are in a crisis you can (and should) reach out to an adult for help, and that adult will come through.
Kids will binge watch this show, and binge watching for 13 hours straight is a different experience from watching a series over time. Think back to the days of Beverly Hills, 90210. Kelly and Dylan, two of the characters on the show, faced some very serious issues and the content was often intense. However, we could only watch one episode at a time and had a whole week to decompress and consider it. Binge viewing these shows allows them to overtake your mind, leaving no time to process or come back into real life.
How can these concerns lead to action and empowerment?
Know if your child is watching or will watch the show.
Try to discourage younger adolescents – or anyone who has symptoms of depression, has experienced sexual assault, or has a history of suicide attempts – from watching it. If your child does watch it, watch it with them, and then discuss the content. Netflix has provided information about crisis services and a helpful discussion guide on its website.
Know the facts about suicide.
The information will help you have truthful discussions with your children. It will also help make you aware of warning signs or changes in behavior that may indicate suicide risk.
Suicide is due to mental illness combining with stressors that result in feelings of depression and hopelessness. People who kill themselves often feel isolated and like a burden to others. Thought processes become skewed and people become unable to think of other ways to solve a problem. In discussions, let your child know that there is always a way out and a better solution than suicide to ANY problem. Let your child know that they are not a burden and that you would be devastated if they were gone. Notably, this is portrayed quite realistically in the show, as Hannah’s parents’ lives are destroyed by her death. This may be an effective deterrent for some viewers.
If you are concerned about your child or loved one, ask them if they have ever had thoughts about wanting to be dead or killing oneself. Asking does NOT risk putting thoughts into their head, as some may believe. Instead, askingcan potentially prevent suicide by being a first step in getting someone the help they need. Suicide is preventable.
Know that sexual assault is common.
Nearly one-third of adolescents are victims of sexual assault. While sexual assault is more common among girls, anyone can be a victim. Survivors of sexual assault may struggle with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, and guilt. They may also feel afraid to come forward for fear of being punished or further targeted. Encourage your child to discuss these issues and seek support if they have been victimized. Stress the difficult path to recovery of victims to increase empathy for survivors. Also know that sexual assault laws have changed and that active consent to sexual acts is needed.
To be sure, parenting teens and preteens includes facing the harsh realities of substance use, sexual assault, bullying, mental illness, and suicide our kids indeed may face. While the content of 13 Reasons Why is often overly intense and disturbing, let’s take this opportunity and use this show to help us help our children navigate these rough seas. Our children deserve it.
If you or your child is in crisis, you can call Lifenet hotline 1800-273-TALK (8255) or text “HOME” to 741741 (crisistextline)