13 Reasons Why – Let’s talk about suicide


I finally bit the bullet and sat down to binge watch the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.  I have been asked about it by parents and patients alike. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, and numerous other professional organizations have all released statements talking about this show. To tell you the truth, I was nervous to watch it.  There have been other movies that depicted teen suicide (who can forget the 80s Heathers or Surviving, the 90s The Virgin Suicides, or the more recent A Girl Like Her….ooohh and check out the documentary Audrie & Daisy). Anyways, teen suicide is always a media topic.  And for good reason.  Check out these stats on teen suicide:

  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of mortality of teens (15-19 yo) and 3rd leading cause in youth (10-14 yo) in United States, 3rd overall leading cause of death of teens worldwide. 2 million US teens attempt suicide annually, 15 youth die per day
  • According to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance:
    • 29.9% of students felt sad or hopeless almost every day for 2+ weeks so that they stopped doing usual activities in the 12 months prior to survey
      • Male 39.8%
      • Female 20.3%
    • 17.7% of students seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months
      • Male 12.2%
      • Female 23.4%
  • 14.6% of students made a plan about how they would attempt suicide in the past 12 months
    • Male 9.8%
    • Female 19.4%
  • 8.6% of students attempted suicide at least once in the past 12 months
    • Male 5.5%
    • Female 11.6%
  • 2.8% of students attempted suicide that resulted in an injury, poisoning, or overdose that had to be treated by doctor or nurse in the past 12 months
    • Male 1.9%
    • Female 3.7%

Now, back to 13 Reasons Why. Why has this series stirred up so much attention (and controversy)? Let’s start with the good. The storyline really does draw you in.  The acting is wonderful. They cover a wide range of totally applicable teen topics – bullying, consent and sexual assault, alcohol and other drug use, social media responsibility, depression, and finally, suicide. Most of my patients who brought it up in clinic really enjoyed it.

Now, the not-so-good.  Why are so many people warning you to take caution about this series? One of the concerns is that it glamorizes suicide as a way to “get back” at those who wronged you and make them see all that they did wrong.  For concrete thinking teenagers, this may make suicide seem like a good way to “teach someone a lesson” as a sort of revenge-fantasy without fully thinking about the finality of the act. Many professional organizations have advised that vulnerable teens (those with lots of risk factors, including current suicidal thoughts or past suicide attempts, victims of bullying, and history of mental health illness) should not watch this show. Also, without giving away too much, it has the main character seeking help from a trusted adult, and nothing being done.  Many have concerns this may discourage teens from seeking help. Some of the scenes, specifically the actual suicide, are really graphic and potentially traumatizing.  A warning had to be put in the beginning of some of the episodes. Finally, it did not show that there are options other than suicide when someone is feeling hopeless and alone.  That is an important point to make whenever suicide is the topic of conversation: there are other options.

So, go ahead and watch 13 Reasons Why.  Parents, watch with your teens.  Teens, watch with your parents. Use this opportunity to talk about all those important topics.  Also, take this opportunity to talk about suicide, ask if your teen has ever thought about hurting themselves.  Having strong connections to family, friends, and community is a protective factor that decreases the likelihood of suicidal behavior. Other protective factors include restricted access to firearms (one of the top methods of completed suicides), having access to mental health care, possessing skills in problem solving and conflict resolution, and having religious/cultural beliefs that discourage suicide.

If you or someone you know is showing warning signs of suicide, including social isolation, giving away possessions, hopeless talk, or posting hints on social, make sure you seek help.  If you need help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.


One comment

  • Michelle Felber

    Are there good resources for teens who are helping support other teens who are at risk of suicide?