ShareThis Page

Show sparks talk on suicide

| Monday, May 15, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
'Thirteen Reasons Why' by Jay Asher
'Thirteen Reasons Why' by Jay Asher

It's all the rage among teens, yet causing rage and concern among parents. The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” an adaptation of the bestselling 2007 book by Jay Asher, has been renewed for a second season. Mental health experts and school administrators are still reeling from the first season which featured a gruesome suicide scene.

We talked with Dr. Sansea L. Jacobson, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, about concerns cropping up as the series gains viewers and popularity.

Why should parents be worried?

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and someone who has watched the entire season, I believe parents should be concerned and aware that the show has graphic and disturbing visual imagery portraying rape, self-injury, suicide, beatings and bullying. There are scenes that are gratuitously violent and likely emotionally distressing, especially for depressed and traumatized youth.

The series also romanticizes suicide, which places youthful viewers at risk for suicide contagion. We know from research that dramatized portrayals of suicide on television and in movies can lead to increased rates of suicide and suicide attempts using the same methods displayed on the screen. This impact is intensified when suicide is presented in the absence of information about mental illness.

While the show undermines the role of concerned parents, all parents need to know that there are mental health resources to support families when youths are struggling. Talking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide and mental health interventions are evidence-based and effective.

It's important to highlight that suicide is uncommon, but parents should be aware of marked changes in behavior that could be a warning sign of depression. Depression in teens often looks different in teens than in adults so it's crucial to be aware of noticeable changes from their baseline. They might withdraw from social connections, have major changes in sleep or appetite, or a decline in grades. Very importantly, teens might present with anger or irritability as their primary mood symptom, as opposed to sadness. I've repeatedly heard from parents that “I didn't realize my teen was sad, I just thought he or she was mad.”

What are mistruths portrayed in the show?

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

Secondly, the school's post-suicide intervention strategy doesn't come close to following national evidence-based guidelines or standards. For instance, allowing Hannah's locker to become a long-term mini-shrine inadvertently creates an emotionally charged reminder of the suicide, which experts warn could be internalized by particularly vulnerable youth as a means to gain recognition.

There is also a theme that suggests adults are somehow incapable of listening to youth at risk. It's important to recognize that teachers and school administrators are not only a resource for support, but are also very much part of the bereaved community.

Why do you think it is popular?

The characters and narrative are compelling and it is understandable why teens are drawn to it. The way the series is produced and publicized, teens are clearly the target audience, and yet the content is presented in a way that is very adult. The important thing to remember is that there is no one right way to talk to teens. Adults should simply and intentionally make time and space for open and honest conversations to happen. Follow the teens lead and really listen without judgement.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.