“13 Reasons Why” is a Netflix series produced by Selena Gomez, a celebrity artist who has struggled with depression and anxiety for several years. Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel “Thirteen Reasons Why,” it tells the story of 17-year-old Hannah, who takes her own life and leaves behind a suicide note in the form of 13 cassette tapes. All 13 episodes became available March 31 and the controversial show is so popular that a second season has already been renewed by Netflix.
The show deals with some heavy topics in addition to suicide, including bullying, rape and other mature subjects. It has prompted schools to send warning letters home to parents with recommendations from the National Association of School Psychologists.
Suicide by the numbers.
- Is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 34
- Is attempted every day by an average of more than 5,240 children in grades 7 through 12
- Is the cause of death for more teens and young adults than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease, combined
- Was the reason for an average of 420,000 emergency room visits every year during the 16 years of an NCBI study (1993-2008)
- ER attempts more than doubled from 244,000 in 1993-1996 to 538,000 in 2005-2008
Studies show that 90 percent of those who died by suicide had an underlying mental illness, so we asked Dr. Elizabeth Ucheoma-Cofield, a psychiatrist and the medical director for the adolescent unit at Medical City Green Oaks Hospital, for her thoughts on the show. As both a parent and an adolescent psychiatrist, she feels there are five pivotal points highlighted by “13 Reasons Why.”
Five opportunities and insights provided by the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.”
Platform for Discussion: Mental illness is still taboo, especially in children and adolescents. “13 Reasons Why” provides the opportunity for parents, teachers, mental health providers and other adults to begin discussions involving depression, suicide and a variety of other topics that are pertinent to teens, including sexual assault and cyberbullying.
Asking for Help/Paying Attention: “13 Reasons Why” highlights the fact that teens in distress need to reach out for help sooner. There were many people in Hannah’s life who could have been very helpful resources for her in her time of distress, but she didn’t utilize them when needed. Conversely, the show is also a cautionary tale for parents regarding the slippery slope of depression and may serve as a catalyst for parents to start researching and paying attention to the warning signs of depression and suicidal thoughts in their children and providing them with professional help sooner.
Perception of Invincibility: Children and adolescents can be impulsive. Many completed suicide attempts in children and adolescents are actually the result of impulsive behavior. Children and teens sometimes do not have the perspective to be able to realize that present crises are temporary. Sometimes children and teens don’t really digest the fact that suicide is permanent and that they will no longer see their friends and family and will no longer have a future.
The main character in the series, Hannah, makes multiple cameo appearances (usually as flashbacks from one of the other characters who are the subjects of her tapes) almost as if she is not really dead. She also controls the actions of the people that she left behind through instructions that she has left on the tapes. This is a very dangerous representation of suicide that alludes to the fact that people who have completed suicide aren’t really gone but exist in some other form that enables them to interact in some way with the people they left behind. This perception of invincibility and lack of finality is actually a soft suggestion to children that suicide is merely an alternate life path and this is not the case.
Attention Seeking Through Suicide: “13 Reasons Why” highlights the fact that Hannah achieved the attention and validation that she didn’t get in life through her death. Many children and teens with depression already feel isolated and invisible. Arguably, the show could give impressionable kids the idea that suicide might be an option to get the same results that Hannah did.
Need to Process: Although “13 Reasons Why” does have a discussion panel at the end of the series to talk about the heavy subject matter presented, it would be much more beneficial for children and teens to have a panel discussion built in after every episode to process the topics discussed more pointedly and frequently.
Clearly, there are a variety of reasons that “13 Reasons Why” can be both adverse and beneficial. At the end of the day, it does help kids understand how important it is to be kind and respectful to others. It also might help them feel empowered to reach out to educators, counselors and other adults when they think that someone (child or adult) is struggling.
If you’d like to talk to your kids about the subjects highlighted in “13 Reasons Why” but aren’t sure where to begin, here are some resources:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) provides free and confidential resources and support for people of all ages in distress or crisis.
For fast, emergency help in a crisis, look to one of our many Medical City ER locations across North Texas. With average wait times posted online, if you do have an emergency, you can spend less time waiting and more time on the moments that matter most.
Find a fast Medical City ER near you.
About Elizabeth Ucheoma-Cofield, MD
Elizabeth Ucheoma-Cofield, MD (lovingly known as “Liz” by friends and family), is an avid reader and writer who enjoys spending time with her family, catching up on her fair share of reality TV and engaging in clothes and shoe shopping at frequent intervals. She loves to travel and visiting multiple countries on every continent is on her bucket list. Exercise is her passion and she is very much interested in holistic health (mind, body, and soul) for all of her patients. She truly believes that working with children is her calling and life’s work.