13 Reasons Why Parents Need to Talk to Their Children About Mental Health & Suicide
by Dr. Ram Chettiar, Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist, Children's Mercy Kansas City
A new season of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is set for release on May 18. Originally a bestselling novel by Jay Asher, the popular first season of the series was tweeted about more than any other Netflix show in its first week of release. The series carries a TV-MA rating, yet it targets a teenage audience as its core. The show depicts complex and controversial issues including suicide, drug and alcohol use, sexual assault, bullying, and gun violence. Mental health providers have been critical of the series for a number of reasons, particularly the unrealistic portrayal of suicide. The full impact of the show on those who are challenged with mental health issues is not known, however, Google Analytics showed a 26 percent spike in searches similar to “how to commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself” for 19 days following the release of the first season. Whether your child has seen or is planning to see “13 Reasons Why,” parents have an opportunity to play a crucial role in supporting and educating their children on mental health and suicide.
1. Mental health issues are prevalent but we are afraid to talk about it. Approximately 10-15 percent of adolescents have experienced a major depressive episode in the last year, but a minority of these adolescents seek treatment. Parents should confront their own discomforts with talking about mental health and start conversations. Sharing stories of hope, providing resources to cope, and even lending a listening ear are important ways to get adolescents talking. Parents of Children’s Mercy patients are often surprised by how much their children is willing to share, if they just ask.
2. There are smart and safe ways to use media. Smart phones and tablet computers have altered the ways in which we socialize and consume media. Since the dawn of the iPhone, teenagers are going out less with their friends, are feeling lonelier, and are getting less sleep. Parental involvement with how teenagers use their devices can promote safe use as well support their mental health.
3. Mental health disorders are highly treatable. Both therapy and medication are effective in treating mood and anxiety disorders. Nine out of ten people who attempt suicide survive, and the majority of these survivors will not have another attempt in their lifetimes. Suicidal thoughts are often short-lived and with appropriate treatment, these individuals can go on to live healthy and fulfilling lives.
4. While “13 Reasons Why” is not a realistic portrayal of suicide, it provides parents an opportunity to talk to teenagers about the very real situations that they may be facing. Watching the show with your teenager can provide discussion points such as: Has this ever happened to you or others at school? How did you react? What can you do if it happens again?
5. Recognizing warning signs in a depressed youth can be vital to their well-being. Four out of five people who attempt suicide show clear warning signs. These signs may include withdrawing from friends and family, changes in sleep or eating habits, and a loss of interest in activities. Provide your child an opportunity to safely share how he or she is feeling by asking.
6. Practice strict firearm safety. Firearms are the most common method of suicide completion. Suicide attempts are commonly impulsive actions in teenagers and most who make an attempt, do so with limited planning. Restricting lethal means, including firearms, provides great potential to limit the possibility of a suicide attempt.
7. The media can misrepresent mental health issues. “13 Reasons Why” presents suicide as the only option for the main character who was showing warning signs and seeking help. The series overemphasizes the social contributions to suicidal thought and minimizes the mental health vulnerabilities that the character had. It is essential that we recognize and treat underlying mood and anxiety disorders.
8. Shows like “13 Reasons Why” serve a purpose of entertainment. The fictional series should not be confused with an educational resource or documentary. It also glorifies suicide through a revenge fantasy, normalizing and legitimizing the act. In our clinics, it is common to see adolescents identifying with the characters in the show, and not considering the help and resources available to someone struggling with depression in its various forms.
9. Some youth are at higher risk than others. Based on several factors including underlying depression, anxiety, past suicidal thoughts, history of physical or sexual trauma, substance abuse, and family history, vulnerable individuals should not watch “13 Reasons Why.” The show may help foster some discussions about important issues, but is not meant to be educational. It is fictionalized and can be traumatic for certain individuals.
10. Teenage brains are still developing. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain which helps regulate emotions and impulses. It will continue to develop into a person’s mid 20’s. An immature prefrontal cortex creates a unique challenge for youth to resolve conflict, think critically and plan for the future.
11. We continue to break down the stigma of mental illness. Mental disorders continue to be among the most common causes of disability in this country. Mental illness affects people of all ages and all walks of life. In recent years, through advocacy and research, we have improved in our ability to recognize mental health issues, seek treatment, and celebrate recovery.
12. Parents may not fully understand, but they can relate. Children today face unique challenges that did not exist when their parents were younger. A supportive, non-judgmental, and caring adult provides a teenager a safe space to open up about his or her struggles. Though the experiences of a parent may be different from his or her child, the emotions are universal.
13. Some helpful resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text: START to 741741
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/find-support/
Jed Foundation: https://www.jedfoundation.org/