Well, the better question probably is, “How do I talk to my teenager about the show 13 Reasons Why? Because if your teen or pre-teen wants to watch this show, and, believe me, they will have heard about it from their friends, then there is probably nothing you can do to prevent them. It is far, far better for you to watch it with them, than to forbid them, and leave them to binge-watch it alone and then be afraid to discuss it with you. I will give you resources in this blog, and there are many other resources available depending on your specific mental health concern. You can be fully prepared to deal with the questions and feelings that may be triggered in your teenager by this show. You don’t have to have all the answers, or know how to solve all the problems. You do need to be able to listen calmly and non-judgmentally, and you do need to reassure your teenager that you will help them find whatever help or answers they need. Once they confide in you, they need to feel that they are no longer alone, that you will assume the responsibility for getting them the help they need.
I know it’s scary. If you are the parent of an at-risk teenager (depressed, or with a personal or family history of suicide, suicidal ideation or depression) then you may be very concerned that they might watch this show. They may be able to understand that the show will trigger some very unpleasant feelings and they may be open to the suggestion not to watch it at all. The important thing is to have the discussion. Even if your child is particularly vulnerable, it is important to ask them if they have heard of the show and what they think. You can help them decide what they would be comfortable saying to a friend or acquaintance who asks them to watch it with them, or asks them if they have already watched it. If they choose not to watch the show, they will still need some guidance about how to respond in these situations so that they remain confident of their decision not to watch. What will they do if they are in a situation where they aren’t comfortable saying no, and someone starts to play the show, or one of the triggering scenes? Can they call you any time? Do you have a code word they could include in a call or text that won’t be embarrassing for them, but you will know that you need to insist they come home right away? Kids routinely pass their phones around to each other, so if you are responding by text, you have to follow the script so that your child isn’t outted by someone reading their texts. Do they know you will always back them up with their friends if they need to use you as an excuse?
The show does a good job of glorifying and romanticizing teenage suicide. It doesn’t discuss mental health issues. It presents school personnel as inept and uncaring. There are graphic depictions both of rape and of the suicide itself. Mental health professionals have serious concerns that the show could lead to copycat suicides- a phenomenon known as “suicide contagion”. If you watch the show with your teenager, instead of them watching alone, you can do a lot to counter these negative effects.
So– How Do I Watch The Show 13 Reasons Why with My Teenager?
First you will want to arm yourself with the excellent list of “Talking Points” by The JED Foundation and SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education). You can keep this list by your side when you watch the show to refer to. These points emphasize that Hannah’s choices are not healthy, normal, or romantic. “Most (people) reach out, talk to others, and seek help or find other productive ways of coping. They go on to lead healthy, normal lives”(1). This is one of the most important points for your teenager to understand. Suicide is not a healthy or glamorous response to life’s problems. There are other options. People will help you. The response of the counselor in 13RW is not typical– the vast majority of school counselors will be able to help you, and if they don’t, there are many other adults who can.
Unfortunately there is no discussion of mental illness in this series. We know that approximately 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from mental illness. Despite this show’s emphasis on blame, in real life people do not just commit suicide to get revenge, they commit suicide because they are in profound pain, and they are suffering from mental illness. There is help available for mental illness and suicidal ideation. Professional therapists can use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR), all evidence-based methods that have been shown to be effective for depression and suicide. Medical doctors can prescribe medication such as anti-depressants that can help with depression and anxiety as well. If you believe your child might be suffering from depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, there are professionals who are able to help.
Your teenager may have questions about their friends. How would they know if a friend is thinking about suicide? The National Association of School Psychologists has an excellent article called, Save a Friend: Tips for Teens to Prevent Suicide (2). This article lists the warning signs for teens to watch for in their friends, and what to do if they notice them or if a friend confides in them that they are contemplating suicide. The most important thing for them to know is not to keep it a secret. If they even suspect a friend might be suicidal, they should tell a trusted adult.
All teenagers should have the numbers for the suicide hotline in their phones. They might need it in an emergency for themselves or for a friend. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or they can text “start” to 741741. Trained counselors are available at these numbers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
13 Reasons Why is in many ways an irresponsible depiction of teenage suicide, but it can open the door to an important discussion that might not otherwise occur. The depictions of cyber-bullying, drunk driving, teen parties, and sexual aggression are unfortunately much more accurate. These can also lead to meaningful discussions with our teens, and will be the topic of future blogs.
Have More Questions?
If you have any questions about teen suicide or depression, please feel free to call or email me for a free 20 minute consultation. I will be more than happy to help you find a therapist who is in your area, or specializes in your issue. If you are interested in learning more about how to talk to your teenager about the issues presented in 13 Reasons Why, please subscribe to my blog and you will automatically get updates in your mail.
(1) 13 Reasons Why: Talking Points for Viewing and Discussing the Series:
(2) Save a Friend: Tips for Teens to Prevent Suicide:
The Trevor Project, specializing in supporting the LGBTQ community, call 866-488-7386, or text “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200.
National Alliance on Mental Illness- warning signs & other excellent information: