Young people especially relate to the experiences of other young people, even if they are fictional characters, when events and emotional responses mirror some of their own experiences and feelings. This is the reason some parents and guardians are concerned about television programs like the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and the way suicide is depicted and perceived by young people watching these shows. Given our experience helping young people learn skills to manage stress that can lead to behaviors with dangerous or deadly consequences (such as suicide), we share these concerns and are here to help families in our community address them effectively.
Suicidal behavior depicted by a fictional character that youth identify with does not have to lead to those same thoughts or actions. There are many individuals and resources available to provide support and assistance in our community.
Deciding whether or not to watch the series or other entertainment programs with similar themes is a choice. Special consideration should be taken for those who are currently experiencing symptoms associated with a mental health condition or who have thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Below are some things to consider for young people interested in watching these types of programs:
- If the choice is made to watch “13 Reasons Why,” an adult and child should ideally watch this show together. If the child has already watched it, the adult can benefit by watching it and having the opportunity to talk about it with the child. It is recommended to not “binge-watch” as this can lead to a flood of emotions that might leave a young person feeling more vulnerable. Taking time between each episode allows the young person to process the emotions and thoughts that are experienced. Use this as an opportunity to engage in a discussion to sort through feelings, thoughts and questions that may arise.
- Identify any negative thoughts that are portrayed in the show. A potential scenario involves what is called “black or white” thinking. An example of this is a high school student that receives a grade lower than expected on an exam. That person decides he or she is a failure and will never succeed in school. This type of black and white thinking does not reflect the reality that the student is doing well overall in the course and excels in many aspects of school and has a healthy personal life. Instead, it focuses only on something perceived as negative. Talking through this with an adult will help to put these life events into perspective and provide the opportunity to think about different ways to handle this type of emotion or experience.
- In the series “13 Reasons Why,” the lead character reaches out to her high school counselor for guidance and support. However, in this fictional story, the counselor unfortunately does not respond in a way that is helpful. Encourage youth to explore what could have been done in this situation. This can lead to a conversation about what other options are available in our community and who to go to for assistance. Point out that help can be found through trusted adults, other school staff, health providers, and confidential resources including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
For those who would like additional information, there are many great organizations that have published recommendations for additional talking points. One example is the JED Foundation, which offers an excellent resource.
Should you have any questions or concerns about the health and well-being of your child, please do not hesitate to contact El Camino Hospital’s ASPIRE program. We offer a no-cost assessment for youth and young adults who are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. For further information or to schedule an assessment appointment, please contact ASPIRE at 866-789-6089.