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13 Reasons Why or Why Not?

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on a book by Jay Asher. As a mom who lost her 16-year-old son T.J. to suicide I find myself reading and watching everything I can about suicide in the hopes of learning something new that I can pass on to help raise awareness and prevent others from dying by their own hand.

Emotions are running high concerning this series as people on one side condemn it while others advocate it should be required viewing. As with most issues I believe the reality lies somewhere in between. First and foremost, the series is out and kids are watching it, so what should you know about it?

13 Reasons Why portrays a young girl named Hannah who takes her life because of hurtful things people did to her. Research shows there is no single cause of suicide; it is usually a combination of health, historical and environmental factors that collide to increase suicide risk. Often we see the environmental factor—bullying, break-up etc. and assume that is the whole story. The reality is over 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable, treatable mental health condition at the time of their death that may or may not have been diagnosed and properly treated. Depression is the most common mental health condition, and the one most commonly found to be a risk factor for suicide. So it is critical to recognize mental health issues and to get proper treatment.

As a mental health advocate I was disappointed that the story doesn’t touch at all on mental illness and, more specifically, depression. A story about suicide that ignores the impact of mental health does a great disservice to breaking down the myths and stigma associated with suicide.

Since losing my son T.J. to suicide I’ve learned that so many kids struggle silently with disorders like depression and anxiety. Added stressors like bullying, break-ups, problems with friends and family, and school pressures can increase suicide risk for a teen that is already struggling with depression or anxiety. Adults need to take these issues seriously and not be so quick to brush off troubling behavior as typical teenage angst.

In the series the school counselor had the opportunity to really make a difference and possibly save a life, but he fell far short. This should serve as a wake-up call to educators to take students seriously. It is always better to err on the side of caution than to risk a young life. Very often school counselors, teachers and coaches are the people kids will turn to, and so they need to be trained in suicide risk and prevention measures. Teens need to understand that if someone does not respond appropriately to their concerns, they need to find someone else who will listen. In addition to trusted adults in their immediate circle, a great source of support is the crisis line: 800-273-TALK (8255) or the crisis text line: text to 741741.

The series certainly has people talking about suicide and other tough topics that today’s teens have to contend with which can be a good thing. It shines a light on a number of troubling issues, such as bullying, rape, drunk driving, social media shaming, and not stepping up when a harmful situation is taking place. Unfortunately, it also graphically and quite horrifically depicts a suicide death, which can be dangerous and damaging to anyone viewing the series—especially those teens that may be struggling with depression or anxiety.

If your kids have already watched 13 Reasons Why, I urge you to view it as well and talk to them about how it made them feel. Listen to what they have to say about what happened and ask them directly about their own thoughts on suicide. Make this an opportunity to have a good discussion about what teens may encounter in their world. Remember to really listen and avoid turning the conversation into a lecture. Emphasize that suicide should NEVER be an option and talk about positive ways to cope with some of the challenging situations Hannah faced. Encourage your child to seek the help of a trusted adult in any situation.

If your teens haven’t seen the series yet, but are intent on doing so, tell them you would like to watch it with them. This way you can discuss it and open a dialogue to some really challenging situations your teens may encounter. To help you, check out these 2 links. One is “13 Reasons Why Talking Points,” which was created by the JED Foundation and SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices in Education) and the other is the “National Association of School Psychologists Position Paper” on the series which provides a lot of good information, guidance and resources for educators and parents.

The series is powerful and impactful on many levels. This is not to say I advocate viewing it, but a lot of teens saw it before most adults even realized what it was about. Whatever your feelings on the series, 13 Reasons Why provides an opportunity to start a conversation on a number of sensitive subjects, which can be very worthwhile. I firmly believe that getting conversations going is a great first step in raising awareness and making positive change.

Posted with love, friendship and T.J. hugs

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