What Parents Should Know About 13 Reasons Why
This is a condensed version of a recent letter to parents from Riverside Trauma Center regarding the Netflix Series 13 Reasons Why. Read the full letter here, written by Nancy Ginty Butler, LICSW and Waheeda Saif, LMHC.
At Riverside Trauma Center, we encourage efforts to raise awareness about mental health challenges and about suicide because such efforts reduce stigma, help those struggling to feel less alone, and lead people to access help. So you would think that when a popular Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, comes along and brings the conversation about suicide into the mainstream, we would be on board. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As with most topics, the issue of suicide is incredibly nuanced.
The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on a book by Jay Asher, follows the classmates of Hannah, a high school student, as they react to secret cassette tapes she recorded narrating the circumstances that led to her suicide death. Parents are frequently told that it is critical to have conversations with their teens about subjects such as sexual consent, mental health, suicide, and bullying. When a show comes along that is popular with this age group, it presents an opportunity to open up discussions in families.
With reports of children as young as 10 years old watching the series, and knowing that many young people are watching without their parents knowing what they watch, the following are a few recommendations we have for parents:
- Ask your children what they know about the show. Have they heard about it? Have they watched it?
- If your children want to see the show, and you feel that it is appropriate given their ages, temperaments, and backgrounds, watch the show with them. For many families, the right decision will be to not watch the show.
- Discuss that you know there are scenes that graphically depict sexual assault and suicide, and decide together that it may be best to skip those scenes. Give them reasons as to why you don’t want them to watch these scenes.
- Counter the romanticized storytelling technique that people can communicate with and manipulate people and relationships from beyond the grave.
- Frame suicide as a person’s misconception that the act is their only solution to a problem about which they feel hopeless. It’s important to create the narrative that suicide rarely happens because of one reason. People are often struggling with a whole host of reasons, and then sometimes one thing becomes the proverbial, “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
- Reinforce that any young person who is struggling with any of the issues raised in the series should talk to a trusted adult and get help. No one should struggle alone. Review with your children who are their trusted adults at home, in their community, and at school.
- Discuss key elements of the show after each episode. To get a conversation started, here are some questions you can ask:
- What do you think about…?
- How do you feel about _____ reacting in that way?
- Do you think he/she could have done something differently?
- What kinds of problems do you think this is going to cause him/her in the long run?
- How would you have preferred the adults reacted in this situation? Or, if you were the adult in this situation, how might you have reacted differently?
As with most difficult topics, conversation with your children is the key. Be curious about their thoughts and feelings, and ask open-ended questions.
For more information on talking to youth about difficult topics or help with coping, please check out the Riverside Trauma Center Resources section. For immediate support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the word “HOME” to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line.