The Risks and Benefits of New Netflix Show “13 Reasons Why”

The recently released Netflix show 13 Reasons Why vividly depicts a 17 year-old girl’s rationale for ending her own life. Fans of the show – which include teens and parents – say it’s a catalyst for broader conversations about suicide, sexual assault, bullying and mental health.

But school districts across the nation, including many in Minnesota, have issued warnings, suggesting it could prompt vulnerable students to consider suicide.

Health Talk asked Katharine J. Nelson, MD, vice chair for education and assistant professor in University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, about her thoughts of the show, and how parents can use it as an opportunity to have important conversations with their kids.

Q: Schools and mental health organizations are suggesting this show may be risky to watch for certain kids. Is this true? If so, why? 

A: Suicide is a deadly and serious issue facing children, teens and adults. Due to certain intense themes within this show, people contemplating suicide or experiencing the hopelessness and helplessness associated with mental illness may be prompted to act on suicidal or self-injurious behavior. Even some comments online show how powerful this imagery can be, noting, “I couldn’t watch this show, it was too emotionally upsetting and I’m working hard to stay alive right now.”

Another concerning idea repeated throughout the show is that others bear direct responsibility for the main character’s suicide, which potentially detracts from the power of each person to choose to live and seek a life worth living. No matter how hopeless things feel, there are psychiatrists, psychologists, health advocates, friends and family members dedicated to helping people work through these emotions.

Q: Are there benefits or positive aspects to this show’s popularity? 

A: People of all ages are experiencing alienation, intense emotional suffering, feelings of being trapped and hopeless, which this show makes clear. In this era of technology and social media, it’s easy to negatively impact another’s reputation in one tap, click, or keystroke. Managing the shame and embarrassment from these types of incidences is extremely stressful for any person; but for those who are vulnerable, these incidences can exacerbate harmful feelings. To its credit, 13 Reasons Why addresses this topic head-on. Hopefully it’s getting people to consider the consequences of their actions prior to embarrassing or assaulting another person.

Q: What’s the best way a parent can engage their kids in a discussion about mental health?

A: This show portrays most adults as somewhat clumsy in their attempt to communicate with high school students and underscores a stereotype that adults lack understanding. For example, a teacher presents curriculum on conflict resolution that encourages students to speak directly to those with whom they have a conflict. In reality, life in high school is not always that cut and dry. The students view this as an oversimplified approach, and it’s insulting to the ones who are deeply entrenched in high-risk conflicts.

Instead, it’s important to let young adults know that you care. Parents should make clear they are on their child’s side. Although parents may not completely understand the situation, it’s important they let their child know that they will work to understand as much as possible. Acknowledge there are no quick or simple solutions.

You can even learn a lot by assessing why a child may be interested in watching the show. Ask them what they enjoy about the show, what they don’t enjoy about it and why. This is a helpful way to open the conversation, prior to assessing or addressing concerns.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this topic?

A: Sexual violence is another area directly explored within this show. For those with whom this show resonates, there is likely a sense of relief that the reality of sexual violence and its impact is directly and painfully portrayed. Rates of sexual violence in our society are high, yet it’s consistently under-reported, under-acknowledged and undertreated. This show is highlighting this harsh reality. Hopefully it advances the dialogue and removes stigma, which is often a barrier to reporting and treatment.