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What parents of teens should know about ‘13 Reasons Why’

Teen suicide

If you’re a parent of a teenager, you may be aware of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” If not, you probably should be. 

Based on the Jay Asher young adult novel of the same name, the show focuses on a teenage girl who completes suicide and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes explaining her decision and what led up to it. The show touches on the issues of teen suicide, bullying and sexual assault.
 
Shortly after the show premiered in March, we began to notice a dramatic increase in adolescent inpatient admissions at Ascension Via Christi Behavioral Health Center. 

Most of these patients had suicidal thoughts, depression, urges to cut themselves or actual self-harming behaviors — mirroring the symptoms of the lead character in the Netflix series. This increase in teen admissions likely is related to a phenomena called "suicide contagion," which can occur when exposure to suicide or suicidal behavior influences another person to engage in this same behavior.  
 
If you allow your child to watch this series, please do so with caution. Be sure to talk with your teen about what is and isn’t realistic in the show. Or watch it together, which can be a conversation-starter with your teen about what he or she may be going through; that can be of benefit to you both.

Here are a few discussion points you may want to make as part of that conversation:

  • Make sure your teen is aware that this is a fictional story, as teenagers tend to identify with people they see on TV and in movies.
  • Because the series implies that the lead character completed suicide because of other's actions, make sure you reinforce with your teen that suicide is not someone else’s fault.  
  • Although suicide also affects family and those left behind, this show doesn’t focus much on how the people left behind feel. Several times, the people who received the tapes had no idea they had been a part of her decision to commit suicide. Finding out this way without a chance to make things right can have devastating consequences in real life. 
  • Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem — a point that may be lost on some viewers as the lead character is still seen throughout the show even after committing suicide.

 It’s important to reach out to a mental health professional if your teenager:

  • Exhibits a change in personality, behavior, sleep pattern or appetite
  • Appears increasingly sad
  • Begins isolating or withdrawing from others
  • Has failing or declining grades
  • Shows a lack of interest in activities such as their job, extracurricular activities
  • Talks of death or dying or questions “Who would miss me if I’m gone?
  • Has multiple physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches and fatigue
  • Starts giving away personal items 

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has developed an FAQ about the program along with a resource guide for parents.

It’s important to remember that while mental health treatment may have failed the fictional lead character in the series, treatment is available and effective. 

About Nse Renee Nkana

I am an advanced practice registered nurse with nine years of experience in adult, adolescent and geriatric psychiatry and hold a national board certification with the American Nurses Credentialing Center as a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner. I have experience caring for patients in outpatient, inpatient, and long-term care settings. My scope of practice encompasses health promotion, disease prevention, diagnosis and medication management of mental health disorders throughout the lifespan.