When a friend told me there was a new Netflix drama about a teenager who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes explaining why, I knew I had to watch it.
As a psychologist working primarily with adolescent mental health concerns, and someone who grew up during the glory days of 90s high-school dramas (thanks Aaron Spelling), 13 Reasons Why piqued both my professional and personal interest.
I began watching and was hooked. I recommended it to others as a bold and intriguing series that dared to broach the topic of youth suicide. Until I watched the final episode.
Despite the warning of graphic content, I didn’t expect to actually watch the lead character commit suicide in explicit detail.
I knew you weren’t supposed to show that stuff on TV, so I kept waiting for it to stop. It didn’t.
This is what your kids are watching now. And you should be concerned.
From a professional perspective, my primary concern was for the vulnerability of young people viewing a detailed suicide scene.
The scene incorrectly depicts suicide as relatively pain-free, effective, and over quickly. The content is disturbing, confronting, and way too accessible to young audiences.
We know that describing suicide methods through media contributes to increased suicidal ideation and rates of suicide. That’s why we don’t see it on mainstream TV.
We can talk about how it shouldn’t be shown, and how those final few episodes are too graphic and potentially capable of triggering those in distress.
But sometimes it takes a controversy to stimulate a bigger conversation. Here are three talking points that I am glad the show has drawn attention to:
Liberty High School offers a ‘communication’ class and ‘compliment bags’, where students receive kind anecdotes from anonymous classmates. They have a counselor on staff. They seem to be doing all the right things, but the show exposes the potential for these well-intentioned efforts to backfire. The naïve expectation that these practices are enough to curb youth mental health problems is something we need to talk about more.
The series portrays all different types of parents – from the seriously concerned, to the absent. Yet none really know of their child’s struggles.
Some have criticised the series for failing to show the young people seeking help from their parents. Instead, I suggest we consider why the characters feel unable to communicate their concerns to adult figures. Do you even know if your own kids have watched this show?
The young people
We see how young people are affected by rumours, dissolution of friendships, dates gone wrong – sometimes trivialised as ‘typical high-school stuff’. If nothing else, 13 Reasons Why reminds us what being a teenager was like, and offers us the opportunity to try to understand.
So the show has cleverly, and perhaps unintentionally, presented us with a dilemma: If we tell young people not to watch are we risking contributing to the stigma and silence around suicide and youth mental health concerns?
If we focus only on the suicide scene, we lose the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion about why young people find the show appealing.
I suggest that we challenge ourselves to consider what they are relating to that they feel they can’t express in real life.
If you’re not sure where to start, try www.conversationsmatter.com.au
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Beyondblue: 1300 224 636 or www.beyondblue.org.au
Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800