13 Reasons Why: What Parents and School Administrators Need to Know
13 Reasons Why aired on March 31st and was quickly declared by Netflix as their most viewed show in history. Based on a book by Jay Asher, the movie focuses on a fictional 17 year old girl named Hannah. A victim of bullying and rape, she dies by suicide and leaves behind a series of 13 tapes blaming others for her death. Extremely troubling to psychology professionals across the nation is that 13 Reasons Why did not highlight the significant part that mental illness plays as a contributor to youth suicide. The show also leaves viewers with no encouragement or guidance to discuss their thoughts and concerns about Hannah’s experiences and suicide with trained and caring adults.
With dark themes and graphic images depicted in the show, it is already making its impact on kids as young as 8 years old. At one of my recent presentations, a psychologist shared that her mental health facility admitted eleven new patients immediately following the airing of Hannah’s suicide scene. One girl even replicated her suicide attempt from the graphic and explicit scenes in the movie. It is important to know that the directors violated all known media guidelines and the memorialization at the school following her death did not follow “Best Practices”. According to www.ReportingOnSuicide.org one should never describe a suicide in a sensationalistic way, depict a suicide in detail, and involve images of the grieving family, friends, memorials or funerals, all of which occurred in the show. Research supports that certain types of news coverage can actually increase the likelihood of suicide. Also disturbing was the portrayal of teenagers leading secret lives of which adults were unaware of and did not appear to care about. Countless times, adults in the show were portrayed as apathetic to their children’s lives. Every character portrayed in the show refused to acknowledge the support system that could have existed had they opened up to their parents about what was occurring in their lives. Rather than encouraging kids to turn to parents and adults in difficult times, this show portrays students keeping silent because they feel parents simply do not understand.
How can we address the needs of children and youth in the aftermath of 13 Reasons Why?:
- All parents and school personnel need to be aware of the impact that 13 Reasons Why is having on the vulnerable young person who has watched it. Most children and teenagers are watching the program alone, without parent or trained adult input to provide an opportunity to discuss alternatives to suicide.
- Students need to be encouraged to go to adults for help, as well as school counselors and school psychologists who are trained in suicide assessment.
- Teachers must be trained to recognize suicide ideation, understand their available resources for referring students, and know how to respond effectively.
- It is critical that schools learn how to discuss suicide prevention and the importance of mental health treatment with their students and parents. In the state of California Assembly Bill 2246 requires suicide prevention and postvention plans to be in place for grades 7 to 12 by the fall of 2017. In January, Keenan presented a webinar on the statutory requirements that can be accessed here.
- We must be aware that while a strong association between bullying and suicide exists, thankfully, a vast majority of bullying victims do not attempt or die by suicide.
- Teens are the most susceptible to suicide contagion yet most schools are reluctant to address youth suicide or are unsure how to do so. Be prepared to provide teachable moments that include debunking the pervasive themes of parent disinterest, counselor ineptness, and contributing factors to youth suicide. Remember, that not all teachers will be comfortable serving as the facilitator for these very important discussions. This is when you send your best prepared people in and let those less comfortable assist.
In summary, it is a common misconception that talking about suicide will plant the idea of suicide into a student’s mind. Suicide is almost always the result of an untreated mental illness—an aspect that was not portrayed in the show—and that no one person or thing is to blame for a suicide. The unexpected fallout of the show includes desires to do ‘what Hannah did’. While unintentional, this show may have compounded suicidal ideation and attempts by vulnerable teenagers viewing the portrayal of dark themes and graphic images of rape and suicide. It is essential for schools to warn parents of their vulnerable youth watching the show without parental supervision and the opportunity for thoughtful discussion.
About Dr. Scott Poland
Dr. Scott Poland has a long history of working on suicide prevention in schools and has authored or co-authored five books on the subject and he recently co-authored the Texas Suicide Safer Schools Plan available at www.texassuicideprevention.org and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org