Earlier this month I finished the first season of the series 13 Reasons Why (13RY). Based on the fictional Jay Asher novel of the same name, this provocative series graphically and unapologetically depicts adolescent suicide, rape, victim blaming, substance abuse, drunk driving, objectification, bullying, child abuse and deceit. The backlash from many adults and experts has generated as much discussion as the show itself and there’s no shortage of objections, which I will not list here as they are amply covered elsewhere.
Many parents who’ve watched the series are shocked and scared: of the realities of what they are witnessing, of the potential impact on their kids, of being “the” unaware parents, of their children being like a single one of the characters in this series. Some parents say, “I’ve heard about that show, I’m not watching it.” and while I understand the reluctance, scared isn’t reason enough to bury our heads in the sand. This series has been marketed to young people and it’s become a phenomenon. If you’re a parent of a tween/teen/young adult and haven’t yet spent the 13 hours to watch this compelling series, start watching. Most teens will recognize at least some of the experiences presented. But this is not content to be digested alone, and for young people, this means with informed caring adults in their lives, not just with their peers. There are many scenes that are not just uncomfortable, but painful, to watch and yet I believe we owe it to our young people to help them navigate these stories and images that are so readily available to them.
Young people with experiences of Depression, PTSD, self-harming behaviors, suicidal ideation or sexual assault are especially vulnerable to the effects of viewing this series and many professional organizations are recommended extreme caution or avoidance altogether.
Some tips for parents, many from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Jed Foundation, both which have issued formal guidance:
Learn how to have a conversation about mental health and suicide before talking with your teen.
Know that your child has most likely heard of or already watched 13RY, so be prepared to respond to any feelings or questions. Listen carefully. Ask open ended questions without judgment. “What do you think of the show?” Resist the urge to offer quick fixes or solutions to their potentially tough questions and reactions. Validate and support their feelings. Follow their cues. If your child is at all distressed, do not hesitate to ask them ”Are you ok?” or “What does all of this mean for you?”
There are many stereotypes and oversimplifications presented in this series. Experts warn that 13RY has some dangerous potential for contagion especially among vulnerable youth. Some teens may take away a disturbing message that suicide as an acceptable solution. Point out that there are ways to cope with the issues presented without suicide and that most people who have these experiences do survive them.
If your teen is watching the show, watch with him/her. Binge watching is not recommended. Allow time to talk about each episode. Again, if your child has experienced mental illness, any level of suicidal thoughts or attempts or sexual assault, protective caution should be taken.
Ask your child if they think any of their friends or classmates exhibit warning signs. Talk with them about how to seek help for their friend or classmate.
If you fear your child may be at risk, get professional help right away. Call (302) 577-2484 for New Castle County Mobile Crisis, 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line.
For more information or ideas, visit JedFoundation.org, afsp.org and 13reasonswhy.info.