Netflix describes their popular and controversial show, “13 Reasons Why”:

After a teenage girl’s perplexing suicide, a classmate receives a series of tapes that unravel the mystery of her tragic choice.

 

Lorraine Ali’s description only hints at the reasons why the series is rated MA-17 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17):

“Mean Girls.” “Freaks and Greeks.” “Heathers.”

Perhaps you’ve heard: High school is treacherous place.

Students are ruthless to one another. Hormones are bad-behavior accelerants. And adults? Utterly clueless.

Now throw in social media-shaming, sexism and suicide, and you have the basic building blocks for the addictive mystery that is “13 Reasons Why.”

 

Emma Dibdin explains the controversy for Seventeen:

Netflix has added new warnings to 13 Reasons Why, following ongoing criticisms of the show’s graphic depiction of suicide and sexual assaults. While many have praised the show for opening up an honest dialogue about these issues in teenagers, some experts have cautioned that its emphasis on its heroine’s suicide could be damaging, and schools are warning parents against letting their children watch the show.

 

Sansea L. Jacobson, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Pittsburgh’s STAR Center, recently binged-watched the first season:

From an artistic perspective, undeniably the characters and narrative of “13 Reasons Why” are compelling and it is understandable that teens are drawn to it. Furthermore, the sensitive topics raised (i.e., bullying, sexual assault, substance use, suicide) are important and should not be ignored.

 

But Dr. Jacobson thinks the show “romanticizes suicide, which places youthful viewers at risk for suicide contagion.” She offers 12 more reasons why parents should be concerned with allowing their children to watch, including two which center on the key role of mental illness:

It focuses on blaming others, as opposed to recognizing that greater than 90 percent of individuals who complete suicide actually struggled with mental illness.

It downplays the cognitive distortions of depression, and instead repeatedly suggests that suicide was the protagonist’s rational “choice” in order to escape the emotional pain caused by others or perhaps, more provocatively, to take revenge on those who wronged her.

 

Graphic imagery, including “self-injury and the suicide itself,” “prolonged rape scenes (yes, more than one, and from multiple perspectives),” and “gratuitously violent” fights and beatings can be distressing to young viewers, especially to those who themselves suffer bullying in their real lives. It is Dr. Jacobson’s final point of criticism that leads to her extremely important piece of advice for parents:

This series had real potential to make a difference, destigmatize mental illness, promote mental health care and inform the public about the signs and symptoms of adolescent depression. But it fell short. That does not mean that we as a community need to fall short, too. There is no one right way to talk to teens. It is most important that adults simply (and intentionally) make time and space for the conversation to happen. Be open and honest. Follow their lead. Listen. Really listen. Non-judgmentally. Then repeat what they say to let them know they are heard and help them clarify fact from fiction. What we do know is that asking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. It is silence that is dangerous.

 

It is unlikely that older children and teenagers will be watching “13 Reasons Why” in the presence of their parents, who are the ones most responsible for their children’s physical and emotional well-being. Violence. Sexual assault. Substance abuse. Mental illness. Suicide. All of these sensitive topics must be addressed by responsible parents not only in the presence of their teenagers, but also with their undivided attention.

Silence is dangerous. Parents — initiate these conversations and have them early and often.

 

Previous discussions on the topics of teen depression and suicide have appeared on The PediaBlog here and here.

 

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