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Netflix 13: How to Start the Discussion

written by Nadia Hashimi, M.D.
on Saturday, 10th June ,2017

As a novelist and as a reader, I believe stories can impact our lives. They bring us to emotional brinks, challenge our way of thinking, and introduce new ideas. Sometimes a character shows us we’re not alone in our feelings.

I believe controversial works can be catalysts for uncomfortable but necessary conversations.

The Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, has raised much concern in the medical and suicide prevention communities. It is an adaptation of a bestselling novel by Jay Asher. The premise is dark and intriguing. A teenage girl takes her own life but leaves behind 13 audio tapes to explain why. There is a web of bullying, shaming, and sexual assaults, home stressors and cover-ups. Suicide, she explains calmly on the tapes, was really her only option.

As a pediatrician, I’ve seen the impact social media, news media and entertainment media affect young people. This show got my attention. I watched it, all thirteen episodes. Yes, there are reasons to be concerned.

Hannah Baker’s portrayal will romanticize suicide for some. Hannah is beautiful, clever and endearing. Repeatedly wronged by her peers, she is left feeling helpless and hopeless, hallmarks of severely depressed and/or suicidal individuals. At her death, her locker becomes a memorial and students flock to it. Her tapes send her peers into a frenzy of guilt and terror that their transgressions will be revealed. It appears Hannah has, from the grave, exacted sweet revenge on her classmates. Hearing her voice when she is already dead, contradicts the finality of suicide which can confound the adolescent mind. The adults around her, even her school counselor, fail to help her even when she reaches out to them.

Contagion phenomenon is a real thing. Hannah Baker’s suicide is revealed in very graphic detail. The scene is harrowing to watch for many reasons. Mental health professionals and medical providers are acutely aware of the contagion phenomenon in suicide. Depictions of fictional suicides and coverage of actual suicides have been linked with a rise in suicide attempts in the exposed population in several areas of the world.1

April 29th, the Washington Post reported that a Florida schools’ superintendent noted a rapid rise in at-risk behavior (self-mutilation and threats of suicide) at elementary and middle schools. In June of this year, a 23 year-old man in Peru committed suicide, leaving behind notes and an audio tape. Some online have speculated that this may have been inspired by 13RW.

But some have managed to take inspiration in a different way. This May, a Michigan school hosted 13 days of students recording and sharing stories of how someone helped them out of place of darkness. They called it “Thirteen Reasons Why Not.”

A television show does not cause mental illness and I have no doubt that the producers of 13RW have no intention of glamorizing suicide. But some among us are more vulnerable and we have a responsibility to safeguard them. Netflix has added viewer warnings, a post show to debrief on the subject matter and a website of mental health resources.

So what’s a parent to do? Talk, talk and talk some more.

  1. Engage your children. Ask if they have heard about the show or if they’ve already watched it. If they have, try not to condemn their actions, since that could stymie a meaningful and important conversation. Censorship, particularly when mobile devices make content so accessible, may propel adolescents to see for themselves what all the fuss is about.

  2. Be open with children. Tell them about the concerns and misconceptions this film perpetuates. Adults are not all useless. Help is available. There is no revenge or glory from beyond the grave.

  3. Suicide is not an occasion to place blame. Hannah blames her peers in her tapes but that implies, dangerously, that her peers could have prevented her from taking her life.

  4. If something doesn’t feel right, say something. If a peer expresses thoughts about self-harm or feeling like the world would be better off without him/her, don’t ignore it.

  5. There are many resources available for mental health and suicidal thoughts. Don’t allow mental illness to be stigmatized. It is not a weakness. It is not a terminal diagnosis. Make sure your children know that there is hope. Sad or helpless feelings can get better and reaching out for help is a sign of strength.

  6. Make the show a teachable moment. 13RW portrays drunk driving, rape and bullying. Importantly, characters in the show watch some of these events occur without intervening. Talk about the right thing to do in these situations.

  7. Reach out for help. The American Psychiatric Association has answered some big mental health questions spurred by the show.

One of the toughest parts of parenting is talking. The audience is often less than excited about a conversation and parents are often at a loss for what to say. There are resources online to guide these discussions but the bottom line is to let your child know he/she self-harm is never the only option.

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