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In the series 13 Reasons Why, teen Hannah Baker commits suicide. Before she does, she records 13 audiotapes and sends them to 13 people she holds responsible. The no-holds-barred depiction of sex, drugs and suicide in the series, recently released on Netflix, has captured the attention of a lot of teens — and mental health professionals.
“There are some positives there,” says Justin Michener, PhD, psychologist and director of program development for Intensive Psychiatric Services at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “The fact that this show is out there opens up conversations about suicide, bullying, drugs. The problem is that it doesn’t offer any solutions.”
Children’s Colorado child and adolescent psychologist Emily Laux, PsyD, agrees. Hannah’s behavior in the series, and the behavior of the other teens and adults she interacts with, says Dr. Laux, perpetuates ideas about suicide that are not only misleading, but potentially dangerous.
“For one thing,” Dr. Laux says, “the idea that most people commit suicide for revenge is a misconception. It also makes revenge by suicide look plausible. Hannah has a real presence after her death, not just through the tapes, but on screen, seeing people’s reactions to the tapes. In reality, it’s not possible to get revenge through suicide, because you’re not around to experience it.”
People who think about suicide are usually struggling with mental illness, and most do so because they’re in emotional distress. They want their pain to end, and suicide seems like the only way.
But unlike Hannah, most don’t really want to go through with it. Most are looking for a reason not to and will usually, sometimes in disguised ways, cry for help.
“I understand showing struggle and how help was not available,” says Dr. Michener. “But the reality is that help is available. People struggling with mental illness can get better. We can help you.”
Just talking — whether with a professional or a trusted adult — can help reduce the pain. Even for kids not immediately considering suicide, it’s healthy for families to talk about the subjects the show brings up. If teens want to watch it, parents should watch it with them, say doctors Michener and Laux.
“Even if they’ve already watched it, it’s not too late to talk about,” says Dr. Michener. “Our kids are thinking about these topics. They’re going to be confronted with this stuff.”
“And it can be hard to spontaneously bring up,” Dr. Laux adds. “Parents can’t really just say, ‘Hey, are you thinking about killing yourself?’ A show like this, in pop culture, can be a way into that conversation.”
Adolescence is a time of choppy waters, and kids need guidance through it, perhaps more than at any other time during their lives. Problems like mental illness and suicide don’t come with easy solutions. But with time, effort and help, kids can work through them and get better. The process starts with talking about it.
Under the right circumstances, a show like 13 Reasons Why might offer a way to begin.
First and most importantly, stay calm.
“Listen and take it seriously, but as much as possible try to contain your own emotional reaction to it,” says Dr. Laux. “Sometimes people have the tendency to jump in and just try to fix things. That’s not very helpful.”
Instead, try to help them work through it. Suicide is ultimately, as Dr. Michener puts it, “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Talking through the pain can help a depressed or suicidal person see that it won’t last forever. Just the act of talking about it can ease the burden.
If you feel someone is in eminent danger, get help. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline or talk to a professional. Emergency departments also offer emergency psychiatric services. And for younger people, if a friend tells you they’re thinking of suicide, don’t try to deal with it by yourself. Go to an adult you trust right away.