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Therapist: Parents need to watch '13 Reasons Why'

Helen Adams | adamshel@musc.edu | May 15, 2017

13 Reasons Why show open
Image from Netflix
The Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" is the most popular show on social media.

A mother sits down to watch Netflix and realizes from the viewing history that her 14-year-old son has been watching “13 Reasons Why,” a series about a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes explaining her reasons for it. That mother needs to consider watching the show herself, says MUSC Health therapist Susan King

Susan King 
Susan King 

“Parents should be talking to their child about what’s going on their life and what are some good things that can be done to support them,” King says. “You could say, ‘I hear a lot about this show. Let’s watch it together and talk about it.’ If your child was unwilling to do, that I’d watch it myself and keep talking. When you’re driving in the car is a good time to talk to kids because they’re a captive audience. You just start talking.”

The show comes at a time when research out of Vanderbilt University shows the rate of children hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions doubled over the past decade. Researchers looked at children in about 30 hospitals from ages 5 to 17 and found a steady increase, with the biggest jump among teenage girls. The number peaks in the spring and fall and hits its lowest level in July, when most children are out of school.

King says “13 Reasons Why” is not for everyone. “If somebody is really vulnerable and going through depression or beginning treatment with a therapist or a psychiatrist, it might be better not to watch the show,” King says.

But the reality is, a lot of young people are tuning in, and some say it hits home. “I had someone, a young adult, tell me that she could really relate to it,” King says. “She’s not suicidal, but the bullying - that was her experience in middle school, and she really wanted me to see it because of that.”

13 Reasons Why sceneImage from Netflix 
Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, sends audiotapes to a friend explaining her reasons for committing suicide. King says events that seem catastrophic in teenagers' lives will not seem like that later. 

While there is a phenomenon called the contagion effect that can occur when someone is exposed to reports about suicide within a family, peer group or the media, King says that is not an issue when it comes to honest conversations between parents and children. As the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide states, talking about suicide does not plant the idea in someone’s head but instead opens the possibility of communication. “There is not a risk, I don’t believe, in parents talking to their children about how they’re feeling and how they’re doing and what support they might need. It’s just always better to have the conversation than not.”

As for the show, King has a couple of criticisms. “In the show the student’s locker is decorated after her death in a tribute to her by other students, some of whom did not really know her. The concern is that this may glamorize a suicide rather than emphasize it was the tragedy that it is.”

13 Reasons Why: Hannah's lockerImage from Netflix 
King says the depiction of Hannah's locker may glamorize suicide instead of showing it as "the ultimate mistake and tragedy." 

She also said there could be more emphasis on what could have helped the girl who dies. “I wish it had more talked about accessing resources and the role that depression has.”

Resources can include not only family members and school counselors and teachers but also mental health professionals. The MUSC Health Institute of Psychiatry has a division of Child and Adolescent Services with outpatient and inpatient options.

Those professionals can listen, advise and advocate. “We can create a culture where kids are safe at school and not bullied. It exists places. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Sometimes it helps for the school to realize we’re putting them on notice. We’re paying attention. It should be your birthright to go to school and feel safe.”

King said it’s important to make clear to young people that what may seem like an event or incident or feeling that can’t be recovered from will not seem like that later. “Ending your life is the ultimate tragedy and mistake,” she said.

In “13 Reasons Why,” the suicidal girl never comes to that realization. “Sometimes events in teenager’s life may seem to them to be catastrophic when in reality it is a blip on the radar of a long life. We want our young people to know that with support they can overcome any obstacle. Death by suicide is the ultimate mistake and tragedy, often an impulsive act. There are always better solutions.”