The Netflix original series, “13 Reasons Why”, is sparking up a range of emotions amongst parents, teens, mental health experts, and school faculty.
Dr. Thomas Farmer, assistant professor in Bastyr's Counseling and Health Psychology department and director of clinical training for the Master of Science in Nutrition and Clinical Health Psychology (MSNCHP) at Bastyr University, explains, “People are feeling more empowered to talk about depression and suicide because of ’13 Reasons Why.’ It’s important for parents, teachers and doctors to ask teens how they are feeling and if they’re having suicidal thoughts because if no one asks, the teen may think no one cares.” While discussion of suicide may be more of a topic in the media due to the program ’13 Reasons Why,’ it may have some unintended consequences. Given the intense nature of topics that have traditionally been taboo in society, many children are left vulnerable to being “activated” or “triggered” through watching the show. The dialogue around these difficult topics shouldn’t be reserved for conversations between professionals, but a conversation between children and their parents, teachers, or mentors.
According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, among young Americans, those between ages 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. Some mental health experts say the show could pose health risks for certain young people, such as those who have suicidal thoughts. Others suggest it provides a valuable opportunity to discuss suicide risk with young people, as well as teaching them how to identify warning signs of depression or suicidal thoughts among their peers.
“For adolescents, recognizing the signs of depression can seem challenging to discern amidst the variety of emotional changes they are experiencing. However, kids losing interest or withdrawing from things they once loved like their friends, activities, and family, can be a sign of depression,” says Dr. Farmer. “It’s important for parents and teachers to recognize when a child starts feeling isolated, begins withdrawing, or feeling agitated and hostile and know this could be something more than just teen behavior.”
Social media can also add to the stress a teen is already feeling from peers. Comments posted can seemingly take on a life of their own as they are shared and spread, as well as persist on the internet. However, this doesn’t mean parents start restricting and monitoring a teenager’s social media activity. For some, social media can actually provide a safe space for sharing and support.
“Parents should educate their children on the impact of social media and help them recognize that it has a lasting effect meaning what you say or post online is there forever and will be seen by a great amount of people,” recommended Farmer.
In talking with a child, Dr. Farmer also offers the following suggestions to parents:
- Offer a child a space to talk without shaming them.
- Ask them questions and talk about suicide in an open manner.
- Share your experiences as child/teen to make them feel comfortable and able to talk to you.
- Feel free to reach to resources in the community if you need help.
- Don’t be afraid of difficult programs like ’13 Reasons Why’, but rather, use the program as an opportunity to watch with your children so that you can help shape the appropriate message: Suicide is not glamourous or an option, but that help and healing is the best option.
Dr. Farmer completed his doctoral internship at Miami Children’s Hospital and has trained at the University of Chicago Hospitals with a focus on pediatric psychology and neuropsychology.