Netflix’s new show 13 Reasons Why has taken the internet by storm, with audiences, parents, teens and professionals alike sharing their views, take and concerns about the show. Whereas the controversial show has opened up a dialogue about suicide, sexual assaults on school or college campuses, and cyber bullying, as a psychologist that works with teens and young adult clients, I see significant and note-worthy problems with the show and its depiction of trauma, grief, pain and its resolution through suicide.
1. Graphic depiction of suicide and self-harm: The show really went places that make one cringe, especially towards the end. TV needs to be dramatic and over the top to capture the attention of its audience, but this was a poorly chosen moment to depict on national television as it can be desensitizing and incredibly triggering to the thousands of viewers who struggle with suicide and suicidal thoughts. There is a good reason why professionals ask clients to stay away from exposure to the details of self-harm online or in chat rooms. Because watching graphic content has an element of motivating some to do the same. Same goes for addiction, sexual activity, disordered eating and trauma.
This is food for thought after you account for the the largest percent increase in rates of suicide in adolescent girls ages 10-14 years, tripling over 15 years from 0.5 to 1.7 per 100,000 people (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). There is no way to justify how watching the show compensates for what it takes away.
2. Adolescents have growing minds: The pre-frontal cortex responsible for controlling planning, working memory, organization, and modulating mood is still working its way to maturity. What does this mean for teen audiences watching the show?
An over- identification with Hannah’s character on TV being impulsive as one that does not clearly think through the consequences of her behavior or its impact on others. Their propensity for low frustration-tolerance and distress and being easily swayed by their emotions, sets them up for the belief that the only way to solve a problem is to end your life, reinforced by Hannah Baker’s thought process. Instead, we want them to know that adversity and problems in life have other solutions that are no doubt hard, but possible.
3. Romanticizing the notion of death: Revenge fantasy and the notion of feeling righteous self-indignation about others feeling apologetic about our death and wishing they could rescue or help us is just that –a misguided fantasy. Seeing suicide as a way to problem solve through shitty life circumstances, or punish others is a not a message worth reinforcing. A very wise social worker on an adolescent inpatient unit that I worked on, told me that the majority of attempts made by teens on the unit came as a function of saying F*** you to their parents/caregivers or to themselves. Unlike the show, this is not fiction, it is indeed a fact.
4. Promoting hopelessness: Inability to see light at the end of the tunnel is an important factor in the engagement of suicide and often a crucial determinant to whether an attempt will be made. People can have suicidal thoughts and feelings for weeks, months, years but it is when they are feeling their most hopeless that they may make an attempt. Through the depiction of adversity, shame and guilt as well as the inability of the community to respond appropriately to the character, the show sends a message of struggle without support and creates a lack of understanding as well as misinformation about the role of mental health professionals. We want those struggling with suicide to come out of the darkness with hope and faith, not fear and desperation. Thats it’s okay to ask for help and help can be more responsive than how it is depicted in the show.
5. What does this mean for parents, teachers, administrators, school and religious communities, mentors and mental health professionals? We need to engage more with youth and talk about these difficult issues. As the rates of depression, anxiety, sexual assault, cyber-bullying spiral, out response needs to be as swift, and expedient. Talking about suicide does not make a youth more suicidal. It only brings out information that was previously unknown.
If you have a teen or young adult nephew, niece, child, friend, family member– ask them whether they have heard of the show, what they think about it, how they feel about the show’s message, whether they identify with the character and that itself will tell you whether you need to be concerned about them. For the characters on the show, listening was too late but for us in real life, it’s never too late to seek help!