Who Is At Risk When Watching “13 Reasons Why?”
Content Warning: Talk of death by suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or needs help, please call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
In the wake of youth binge watching Netflix’s show “13 Reasons Why,” mental health advocates, parents, and schools are worried that teens are getting the wrong messages about death by suicide and that the show glorifies death by suicide. The overall plot of the show is that a teen dies by suicide but leaves behind cassette tapes with 13 sides, explaining the 13 reasons why she died, and each reason is due to a person in her life. The tapes get passed around, in order, to the people she believes are the reasons behind her death.
Some claim there has been a rise in suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and depression, especially in teens, since the show came out. Right now, there is no research that supports this claim. I will say that as a parent of a teen I and other parents have seen an uptick in suicidal thoughts and reports of depression amongst the teen peer groups. As a minister, I have dealt with myself and heard from colleagues of more deaths by suicide and more kids reporting suicidal thoughts and depression than usual. Correlation does not equal causation, but it is something to be aware of if you have teens or work with them. Educate yourself about the show and about death by suicide.
I am conflicted on the show. I actually think it could possibly, maybe be used as an educational opportunity to educate young adults not just about death by suicide, but also about sexism, objectification of women and men, bullying, gossiping, slut shaming, rape culture, and more. At the same time, the amount of education an adult needs around each of these issues and the way an adult needs to engage with a teen while watching the show is substantial. I have watched the show, and there are a lot of talking points you need to cover, not just about death by suicide, but about a range of other topics as well. Adults also need to know how much to talk and how to not inundate a teen with too much information so they feel overwhelmed and scared. I would not recommend it at all for youth under the age of 18 though. Trust me, I let my kid watch a lot of stuff that may have a higher content rating but is really good for educational purposes, and even I don't think this show is okay for younger teens to watch. This show is rated TV-MA.
As someone who lives with mental illness and has had suicidal thoughts, I feel the show is not a good representation of mental illness and is often extremely shaming of us. It paints mental illness as not an actual illness caused by multiple factors, but instead implies that death by suicide is basically a revenge tactic, not the result of an actual illness. It also makes it look like none of us think about our families, friends, or community and we do not care what would happen to them if we died. That is simply untrue and profoundly shaming. The show promotes dealing with preventing suicide by telling people “suicide is not an option,” as if it is a choice people make. Implying that death by suicide is a choice increases stigma against mental illness. The show also promotes this idea that if you tell someone who is feeling suicidal how bad it will be for those who they leave behind, that this should prevent suicide. Telling people that they shouldn’t commit suicide because it will hurt others only increases the likelihood of a person following through on death by suicide because it shames them and does not try and actually help them, but rather tells them they are a bad person who hurts others. Feeling hatred and shame about one's self increases the risk of death by suicide.
So, should you let your older teen watch the show or read the book “13 Reasons Why?” (The show is based on the book by Jay Ahser.) I can’t answer that for you. I can give you some guidelines though as to who might be at more risk when watching the show. Please understand though that every person is different, you make your own parenting decisions, and I am not a medical professional this is just my opinion and not to be taken as medical advice. My overall advice is when in doubt, don’t watch it. It is not worth the risk.
Overall, the risk of watching a show like this is extremely high for anyone. We all think we know our kids and know what they can and can not handle, but with things like this, we really do not know what may be traumatizing to a child or teen. It is even risky for adults. Since 1 in 4 people have mental illness, it is pretty likely that we either have or know someone close to us that has mental illness and the show can trigger a lot of emotions for us and can be scary.
A teen with anxiety probably should not watch this. Those of us with anxiety often have a hard time with things like this. While we intellectually know that the show is not real or is not about us and not a risk for us, our anxious mind does not care. It will often fixate and worry and start to believe things that are not accurate. It would be very easy for a child (or even an adult) with anxiety to watch the show and with every episode become increasingly scared that they are suicidal. Or that they are a bully. Or they may start to go through every thing they have ever said to friends and classmates and wonder if that one thing they said could cause a death by suicide.
A person of any age who has mental illness, particularly depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia may be at risk. It can be triggering to watch shows like this and can contribute to the risk of death by suicide. It can also just be scary and for sure it runs a huge risk of setting someone back in their recovery. I don’t really have words to describe watching things like this when you live with mental illness. Depending on how you are doing, it can be profoundly terrifying, sad, and make us feel very unsafe.
A teen who lives with someone with mental illness may not want to watch this show. It can be way to scary and they may worry that their loved one will die by suicide. The ramifications of watching the show may show up years later. For example, if five years after watching the show a teens family member, let’s say a parent, dies by suicide, the teen will remember this show and may very well wonder if they killed their parent. This will lead to psychological trauma for the child. If there is no education on how the show is a total misrepresentation of the real reasons for death by suicide, then I do not recommend showing this to a teen with family or friends with mental illness. Honestly, this risk is the same for all of us who watch the show. If anyone in our life dies by suicide, watching this show may make us think that their death is our fault. That is not true and extremely psychologically damaging to people.
A person who is having suicidal thoughts and those who know them, because this show promotes hiding death by suicide. None of the kids in the show tell an adult about the tapes left by the girl who died. In fact, most of the kids terrorize and harm the one character to make sure he does not share the tapes. This normalizes death by suicide and promotes the idea that we hide it. Our kids, and us adults, need to know that when someone expresses suicidal thoughts, we have to tell someone. Teens need to know to inform their parents or another responsible adult right away. We adults need to notify the parents of he person whit suicidal thoughts or speech and we need to notify any other adults who may oversee the child, such as a minister, teacher, youth program director, or coach. Talk with your teen about what to do if someone expresses thoughts of suicide and all the different forms those come in. For example "I want to die," "I give up on life," or if you social media posts or texts like "Goodbye" or "I just can't do this anymore. I'm done." Let your teen know that speaking up will never mean they get in trouble, either by an adult or other kids. Let them know you will keep them safe.
Teens who have a difficult time with black and white thinking (fyi, most teens and adults do) and issues around fairness and revenge may get the wrong message from this show. The character who dies by suicide blames people for her death and then creates tapes that she leaves for them to listen to, not allowing them to tell anyone, causing extreme psychological damage to those 13 people. Some people may see this as a viable option for revenge as it is portrayed as justified and glamorous.
Anyone who is the victim of rape may experience secondary traumatic stress disorder (a trauma reaction caused by indirect exposure to a traumatic event) from watching the show.
I would also caution watching this show for people who have any trauma background or who have been victims of bullying, slut shaming, or sexual objectification. Watching this may cause secondary traumatic stress for them as well.
If you are not ready to talk to your kids about death by suicide, mental illness, sexism, objectification of women and men, bullying, gossiping, slut shaming, sex, relationships, consent, sexual harassment, and rape culture, then don’t let them watch the show. They are unable to process this content and know what is real and what is not, or to know that many of the examples in the show are terribly damaging to themselves and others and are things that should not be done. These topics are glorified in this show, meaning that the show makes these topics more attractive to youth to engage in and be a part of. The viral growth of the show indicates that youth are not watching it to learn more and be more aware, but because it is entertainment to them. The show is very engaging and done in a way that includes so much mystery that you just have to know what happens next. Even for me, it is very easy to forget that you are watching something that is about a very serious topic that should not be taken lightly and we do not want to be desensitized to. Without a guide to help them, the show just becomes glorification of death by suicide, sexism, objectification, drinking, sex without a relationship or consent or feelings, and bullying.
Lastly, if you “ban” your child from watching the show, they may be more likely to watch it. Have a discussion with your teen about what your concerns are. Share information with them. If they insist on watching it, tell them that you will watch it first and then that you will watch it with them so you can talk about it together.
If you watch the show with your teen, here are some resources on some of the different topics in the show and how to talk about them. (Check back as I will add to this list. If you have something to add to the list, comment on Facebook or send me a message through the contact section on the right side of my website):
BOOK: The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults (I recommend this because knowing how the teenage brain works is essential to knowing why media makes them so much more vulnerable than an adult. Their brains work differently than ours and interpret media differently.)