From the School Counsellor
The Impact of ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ on Young People
There has been significant hype around the new television series ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ which debuted on Netflix in late March. The show focuses on teen suicide, particularly about a school girl named Hannah who commits suicide, and leaves behind 13 tapes singling out friends and classmates that she considers responsible for her decision. The show has received some praise for its unflinching take on some serious issues like assault, bullying, drug/alcohol use and sex, but also the impact seemingly minor actions can have on the teenage psyche. It has also been commended for starting conversation about suicide which is the second leading cause of death among teens. However, the show has also become the source of much controversy with significant concerns around the way it portrays mental health and suicide, as well as the graphic scenes of rape, drug use, drink driving, and the method of suicide used. The show has also been critiqued because Hannah places significant blame on her peers for her suicide creating a misconception that a suicidal person can be in control after death. The show also fails to meaningfully address mental health which plays a significant role in 90 percent of suicides. The show did not portray any other alternatives for Hannah other than that of suicide. When Hannah sought help from adults in the show (the teacher and school counsellor) it completely undermined their ability to help and it depicted an unethical and unrealistic view that even adults and mental health professionals don’t know what to do and cannot help in a crisis. This is a huge disservice to the supports that are available for teenagers in the community and it is hugely concerning that teenagers may be susceptible in believing that adults cannot help when there are many highly trained professionals that can treat mental health issues in adolescents.
The series has put the world into damage control with concerns around suicide contagion or “copycat suicides”. When suicide is glamorised in the media through showing memorials, grieving loved ones and a sensitive boy that jumps in to rescue you and falls in love, or even method of suicide it can be dangerous to people already vulnerable to mental health and at risk of suicide. The American School expressed fear that “the creation of an elaborate suicide note that has a revenge-like quality to it may be appealing to students who are already looking for a ‘way out” (The Sun, 2017). Headspace has also issued a warning with increasing concerns across Australia about the explicit content featured in the series. Headspace reported that “national and international research clearly indicates the very real impact and risk to harmful suicide exposure leading to increased risk and possible suicide contagion”.
I strongly urge parents to be aware of the dangers and risks for vulnerable young people (and young people generally) who have been exposed to this content. The National Association of School Psychologists in America recommend that vulnerable youth not watch the show as “its powerful story telling may lead to impressionable viewers to romanticise the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies”. The reality is that individuals do not simply turn to suicide when things get tough, it is typically a combination of mental illness, overwhelming or intolerable stressors and inadequate coping mechanisms. Many schools and services have however reported an increase in at-risk behaviour since the show aired which is of concern.
I strongly recommend that parents (with your daughters if possible) and adults view this show as young adults sometimes blur the line between fiction and reality, particularly the one struggling with mental health issues, so it is important to encourage conversation about the topics in this show with your daughter. Teenagers will easily connect with the show given its portrayals of common teenage issues, so this show might be a platform to openly discuss sensitive topics such as sexual health, rights and responsibilities in relationships, assault, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol use, support etc. Even more so, it is important to discuss how suicide is depicted in the show, challenge Hannah’s perspective and choices in the way she responds to issues, what wasn’t responsible in the show, and also to talk about mental health. They are not new concepts to your daughter but since the show isn’t adequately covering these topics, it is important for parents or anyone watching the show to do it. Young people often feel more comfortable approaching these discussions when they are about fictional characters. The show also sparks conversation within peer groups which may reduce the stigma around mental health and encourage help seeking behaviour.
Below are some links with important information on how to support your daughter, particularly if you know they have been exposed to the content or have expressed concerns around their own mental health, suicidal ideation or self-harm. We cannot prevent discussion or viewing of the show but teen suicide and prevention needs to be spoken about because this is a significant concern amongst teens.
Grief – How a young person might respond to a suicide
Managing social media following a suicide
Warning Signs in Young People
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Prior suicidal behaviour
- Talking about suicide or death
- Planning for suicide
- Putting affairs in order e.g. giving away possessions, especially those that have special significance for the person
- Writing a suicide note or goodbye letters to people
- Uncharacteristic risk-taking or recklessness behaviour
- Unexplained crying
- Emotional outbursts
- Major changes to sleeping patterns – too much or too little
- Loss of energy
- Loss of interest in personal hygiene or appearance
- Sudden and extreme changes in eating habits – either loss of appetite or increase in appetite
- Weight gain or loss
- Increase in minor illnesses
- Negative thoughts – “What’s the point? Things are never going to get any better”
Advice for Parents
- Ask the young person if they want to talk – this leaves the control in their hands.
- Make the initial approach but don’t push them. You might start by saying I am worried about you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately, is everything ok?
- Being supportive doesn’t mean you’re saying the behaviour is OK – it’s saying that you want to be there for the young person to help them.
- If they won’t talk to you, is there a trusted adult they will talk to?
- Seek support of a Health Professional
- Don’t take it personally –young people don’t intentionally try to make you feel bad or guilty. Even if it feels like they are trying to manipulate you it may not be the reason they are feeling this way.
- Make a safety plan – If you’re able to, sit down with the young person and make a plan about what to do if they feel down. This might make things feel safer for you and the young person. This may also reduce the ‘secrecy’ around self-harm or suicidal ideation and make the young person feel supported. Talk to a health professional about making a plan together. Reduce ‘access to means’ if possible.
- Try to understand what the young person may be experiencing and how you can support that young person to find different ways of coping.
- Take care of yourself –Make sure you are taking care of your own needs, as well as those of the person you care about. The more you are able to relax, the easier it will be to deal with whatever comes up.
- Be clear about what your limits are – Most people feel completely out of their depth when it comes to self-harm or suicide. It’s OK if you feel uncomfortable with it and it’s ok if you don’t feel able to talk about it. Let the young person know this and together seek out the assistance of a health professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor.
There is a parenting program starting next week in Caringbah. The program is called ‘Tuning in to Teens’ which shows you how to help your teen develop emotional intelligence. If you are interested, click on the link below:
- Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au
- Lifeline: Phone: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
- Parent Line: 1300 1300 52 or parentline.com.au
- Your General Practitioner (Family Doctor)
- A referral from your GP to a Mental Health Professional (Psychologist)
- Your School Counsellor
- A psychological service for young people- Headspace
- Your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)
- The Emergency Department of your Local Hospital
- Mental Health Access Line: 1800 011 511