The show’s protagonist is a fictional teen named Hannah, who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 audio tapes to the persons who have wronged her. While most people who commit suicide do so because they are consumed in his or her pain, the person becomes frantic and – in all likelihood – isn’t thinking clearly. In contrast, Hannah’s behaviors are planned: her suicide is either a bid to teach others a lesson or to gain compassion (i.e., “I’ll be more loved in death than in life”). Hannah is also memorialized in an unhealthy way. Through voice overs and dramatic flashbacks, she is presented as almost an angelic presence that speaks up heroically for the oppressed. For many teens who struggle with mental health issues, romanticizing Hannah’s suicide in this way can be extremely harmful.
This maturely rated show has been highly controversial and while many wonder why, here are a few reasons this show does not meet realistic expectations:
1. Suicide does not always change a person’s behaviorIn the series Hannah’s suicide does seem to be initially effective in changing behavior, however this is rarely the case. Many teen viewers may not understand that suicide very rarely results in bullies changing their behavior for the better. The only people that suicide affects in a lasting way tend to be the people that loved the person the most. Suicide is never an effective way to get others to change.
2. Teens model unhealthy behaviors for coping and reaching outBefore her fictional death, Hannah “reaches out” in several ways; however, the show implies that reaching out doesn’t work. Hannah talks with a counselor who responds insensitively. Teens in trouble may not understand that the way the counselor responds in the show is not typical, leaving the teen with the message that treatment is bound to fail. After Hannah reaches out, she stops trying to communicate in a healthy way. This type of thinking reinforces depression: “If I feel like things are hopeless, then they must be hopeless” or “If I tried to talk before and it didn’t work, then it will never work.”
3. Adults are the enemyMany of the adults in the series are depicted as clueless and/or insensitive. They do not listen to Hannah or notice her pain. This sends the unintended message that talking with adults will not be helpful which we know is no true.
What Parents Can Do
The importance of frequently talking and keeping an open, receptive relationship with your teen cannot be overstated. As a society, we need to strike a balance between not dismissing mental health issues (e.g., “Oh, it is just a faze”; “She is only doing it for ‘attention’; “He’ll get over it”) and not unintentionally romanticizing mental health issues (e.g., talking endlessly about cutting; repeating stories of dramatic suicide attempts). Here are some quick things parents can do to help their teens.
Know the symptoms of depression in yourself and others
Depression is not just a “bad hair day” or a normal, temporary reaction to discouragement. A Major Depressive Episode, for instance, is defined as someone experiencing five or more of the following symptoms every day (or most days) for two weeks or more:
- Depressed or Irritable Mood
- Sleep Problems (i.e., sleeping too much or too little; sleeping mainly during the day)
- Change in Interests (i.e., not being interested in what you used to enjoy) or low motivation
- Excessive guilt or unrealistically low self-image
- Significantly low energy and/or change in self-care (i.e., not showering anymore)
- Significantly worse concentration (i.e., sharp decline in grades or performance)
- Changes in appetite (i.e., eating too much or too little)
- Agitation or severe anxiety/ panic attacks
- Suicidal thoughts, plans or behaviors – including self-harm (i.e., intentionally cutting or burning yourself)
Be sensitive/aware of media influenceKnow the shows/ websites your child either watches or frequents. Do they only emphasize depression, mental illness, or self-harm? Or do they also emphasize and model good coping? Do they illustrate positive treatment success stories or do they only focus on how adults – including professionals – “don’t understand” for the sake of increasing narrative drama? Be willing to sensitively intervene if the media your child consumes seems harmful. You may not be able to ban all such influences, but you can talk with your teen about the effect that such shows/ websites have on his or her mental health and mood. For the same reason a person is struggling with alcoholism and should not hang out around a bar, persons who struggle with depression and self-harm should not electronically hang out where depression and self-harm are a major, reoccurring theme.
Set up “Ground Rules” for Social Media
Be Open and Receptive
- They are afraid their parents will ‘freak out’
- They assume that if they open up about one thing, they have to open up about everything
- They’re afraid they will be blown off by parents, who may act like their pain is “no big deal”
Regarding the “my-parents-will-freak-out” concern:
Assure your children that – while you cannot promise that you will not have any reaction to what they say – you will be far more open and trusting if they come to you first. Help your teen to understand that if they come to you first, they will keep at least some of your trust. Most parents feel reassured when the teen talks to them first, but you have to back up what you say by not subtly punishing the teen for taking a risk and opening up to you.
Regarding the “Now-I-have-to-be-open-about-everything” concern:
Let your teen know that it’s normal to not share everything. Let them know that you’ll listen to these other concerns when the time is right; however, there are some topics that you need to know about right away, like:
- If they or someone else has been (or is) being abused
- If they or someone else are thinking of hurting themselves or others.
Reassure them that if they talk to you about these concerns, there are other things that they can keep to themselves.
Regarding the “I’ll-get-blown-off” concern:
Reassure your teen that you believe that their emotional pain is real. From their point-of-view, it is a ;big deal. Work out some key words, like “Dad, I don’t feel safe” or “Mom, I think I need help.” Reassure them that if they use these words, you’ll put aside whatever you are doing and listen to them in a private setting. And while you are listening, remember the following adage: connect before correct.
Most persons who actually commit suicide are doing so to escape emotional or physical pain. We should not judge them. But watching such media can trigger strong feelings of escape, even in persons who are not contemplating suicide for the reasons depicted in 13 Reasons Why.