13 Reasons Why (Season 1), a Netflix series that captivated teens and parents alike, tells the story of a fictional character named “Hannah Baker,” who dies by suicide and leaves behind 13 recordings for the people she claims contributed to her death in some way. (Note: Season 2 debuted on May 18, 2018.) Each cassette tape details one person who failed Hannah along the way.

The show sparked immediate debate among parents, educators, psychologists, and anyone who works with teens, with some arguing that the show opens the doors to difficult conversations and others countering that the show is too graphic for its intended audience and should come with significant trigger warnings.

Many school districts across the country issued statements about the content of the show and provided talking points created by the JED Foundation.The problem, of course, is that the damage had already been done.

Many parents of middle and high school students were shocked to learn that their kids binge-watched the show on their phones on school grounds, during bus rides or carpools with earbuds in, or under the covers at night. Those who didn’t watch it in its entirety learned about it through social media, at the lunch table, and in the hallways. Whether or not they saw each episode, many teens heard, in great detail, about the graphic suicide scene at the end of the season.

Beyond the suicide scene, the show is laced with bullying, betrayal, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and depression throughout. It’s difficult enough to watch one episode at a time, but many teens chose to binge watch the season in just a few days, making it completely overwhelming and difficult to process. Either way, teens need to talk about what they viewed and how they processed it with an adult.

These conversations are never easy, but watching the show with your teen will help you start a dialogue about suicide prevention, bullying, sexual assault and harassment, and depression.

Get the Facts

According to the latest statistics compiled by the CDC, 8% of students in grades 9-12 attempted suicide one or more times, 17% seriously considered attempting suicide, and 13.6% made a plan about how they would commit suicide during a 12-month period. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons ages 10-14 and the second leading cause among persons ages 15-34. 2

There is no single cause of suicide, but some mental health disorders carry a higher risk of suicide and certain factors can play a role in suicidal behavior, including trauma, sexual assault, grief and loss, and bullying. Suicide most often occurs when stressors exceed the ability to cope.

Know the Warning Signs

Something to keep an eye on is a change in behavior or an entirely new behavior, including symptoms of depression, substance abuse, and marked difference in personality.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention cautions parents to watch for several different red flags, including:

Suicidal Thoughts

  • Feeling like a burden to others
  • Feeling trapped
  • Having no reason to live
  • Describing unbearable pain

Behavioral Changes

  • Increased drug and/or alcohol use
  • Reckless behavior
  • Social isolation
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Saying goodbye
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Withdrawing from normal activities
  • Online searches for suicide

Mood Symptoms

  • Depression
  • Loss of interest
  • Rage
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Humiliation
  • Worthlessness

Listen and Validate

It’s important to listen to and validate your teen’s feelings about suicide, whether your teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts or is concerned about a friend.

Resist the urge to dismiss talk of suicide as simply a cry for attention, a phase, or normal teen angst. Though 13 Reasons Why portrays suicide as the only option for Hannah Baker, suicide is not a solution for depression, anxiety, sexual assault, or bullying.

Ask questions to engage your teen in a deeper discussion about suicide. Empathize with your teen’s concerns and help your teen discuss alternatives.

Talk about Safety Nets

The school counselor in 13 Reasons Why appears incompetent and fails to help Hannah when she reaches out. It’s important to help teens understand that most school counselors are supportive resources for students struggling with any number of issues, and they should reach out for help when feeling overwhelmed by stress or experiencing symptoms of depression.

Talk to your teen about the safety nets available to him. Psychotherapists, physicians, teachers, parents, extended family members, close friends, guidance counselors, and youth group leaders are all capable of finding resources to help suicidal teens.

Discuss Bullying

Cyber-bullying is a theme throughout 13 Reasons Why, as teens use their phones to destroy the reputations of others. The truth is that teens today are navigating murky waters with the widespread of use of social media. A single post can make or break a reputation, and friends and scorned exes can use photos stored on their phones to get revenge.

Talk openly, honestly, and often about cyber-bullying and how to use social media in a positive way. Ask your teen about her favorite apps and how she uses them. Talk about what to do if she witnesses bullying on social media or through messaging.

Clarify the Difference Between Tattling and Reporting

Teens sometimes keep secrets for their friends because they don’t want to be the ones who squealed to the adults. Teens need to understand that reporting suicidal behavior, sexual assault, bullying, or suicide threats seen on social media does not fall under the umbrella of “tattling” and can actually save a life.

It might feel like being a secret keeper helps another teen, but often the secrets teens keep are the very issues that require professional help.

Help Your Teen Understand that Depression is Treatable

The National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 3 million adolescents experienced a major depressive episode during the previous 12 months. 4 It is one of the most common mental disorders to affect teens.

The good news is that is that depression is very treatable. Through psychotherapy, medication, lifestyle changes (including increased sleep, improved nutrition, and daily exercise), and increased support, teens can reduce the symptoms of and recover from depression.

Hollywood has a way of magnifying the pain and suffering when it comes to mental health, but it’s important for teens to understand that help is available to them and they can even take steps to help a friend in need.

Read PsyCom’s article about 13 Reasons Why, Season 2 here.

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Last Updated: Jun 8, 2018