Parents Talk Back

I forced myself to watch Netfix’s hit series “13 Reasons Why,” even though I knew it would dredge up decades-old, unsettling memories.

Nearly every tween and teen has either watched or heard about the graphic and controversial show, in which a teenage girl is raped by a popular classmate and commits suicide. She leaves behind 13 cassette tapes, each one dedicated to a person she implicates in her death.

My junior year of high school, three students committed suicide. I remember hearing the details of how each one of them died, the shock and questions afterward. The aftermath of a friend’s suicide is nothing like the revenge fantasy that unfolds in the series.

School districts across the country have sent warnings and letters to parents about the problematic ways the show portrays suicide. One Colorado school district, grieving the deaths of seven students who have committed suicide, briefly pulled the book upon which the series is based from its libraries.

Nearly every parent I spoke to about the series confessed that their child had seen it without their permission. Some had forbidden their kids from watching it, but discovered later that they’d watched it anyway.

So, what should a parent say to a tween or teen about the show, especially if they aren’t interested in watching it themselves?

For answers, I talked to two experts -- Jane Smith, director of Life Crisis Services at St. Louis-based mental health counseling agency Provident, and Marian McCord, executive director of the CHADS Coalition (Communities Healing Adolescent Depression and Suicide) -- along with researching tip sheets from various suicide prevention programs. Here are 13 things parents can say to their kids when trying to mitigate some of the potentially harmful messages in this series:

1. If you come to us with thoughts of self-harm, depression or anxiety, we will respond calmly. We will not freak out. We will listen and help.

2. If you have ever self-harmed or been a victim of sexual abuse or assault, or have had suicidal thoughts, the show can trigger those painful feelings and thoughts. If you start having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention hotline is available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255.

3. If you or someone you know is dealing with the trauma of a sexual assault, there is also a National Sexual Assault hotline: 1-800-656-4673. It’s important to talk to a trusted adult about it.

4. A friend’s suicide is never the fault of surviving friends or loved ones.

5. Unlike the character in this show, people don’t get justice or revenge against bullies after they’ve killed themselves. That’s fantasy, not reality.

6. The teens on the show often made a mistake or bad situation worse by lying and keeping it secret. That never solves a big problem.

7. If you turn to an adult, in your school or elsewhere, who discounts or minimizes your story of bullying or abuse, there’s another adult out there who will listen and try to help. Keep trying until you find that person.

8. If a friend expresses suicidal thoughts to you, immediately tell an adult. It is not a betrayal. You might be saving someone’s life.

9. The main character on the show is the victim of false rumors that damage her reputation at school. This feels completely isolating, but lots of people have rumors spread about them at some point in their lives. Many of us have gotten through it, and we can help you do the same.

10. Depression and other mental illness can be treated with therapy, medication or both. There are also millions of people who suffer trauma and survive and live healthy, normal lives despite it.

11. A person who commits suicide doesn’t continue having a relationship with people once they are dead.

12. The sooner a person reaches out for help, whether for themselves or a friend, the better. It might take a few tries to find the right counselor.

13. It’s common to feel a lot of anger, frustration and anxiety about difficult situations you might face growing up. Mental health workers are reporting epidemic levels of anxiety and stress among kids. But suicide is never the answer.

It can be scary to talk to young people about suicide. If they’ve already watched this series, though, they’ve only seen a Hollywood treatment of this important issue.

They need a reality-based discussion, too.

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