The 13-part series follows main protagonist Clay as he listens to 13 audio tapes left behind by Hannah to explain her suicide.
In these tapes, Hannah blames her death on the actions of her classmates and viewers join Clay as he immerses himself in Hannah's life experience and death. 13 Reasons Why plays out like a thriller and throughout we hear Hannah's voice explaining the background to her suicide. Some commentators promote the benefits of 13 Reasons Why being a driver of important conversations around mental health and suicide. There is also talk of some schools using the series within their curriculum. Many child psychologists and suicide prevention experts however are very concerned about the potential inferences that can be drawn from the series. Suicide 'ideation' and the potential for a contagion effect are real and well documented phenomena.
The message of '13 Reasons Why' is not one of hope or optimism but of tragedy and blame. Experts are concerned that 13 Reasons Why not only presents a suicide in graphic detail by that it may also for some teens:
- Confirm that suicide is a solution;
- Confirm that there are 'valid' reasons for a suicide; and
- Confirm that in your death you may have the impact that you didn't in your life.
‘Suicide contagion is a very real phenomenon. It's where a person by being exposed to suicide has an increased likelihood of attempting it. Young people are particularly vulnerable to suicide contagion, as teenagers strongly identify with the actions of their peer groups. Broadcasting messages of suicide not only creates a sense of normalisation, but if there is an added ‘appeal’ of martyrdom, a romanticised view of suicide can be adopted by young people’ Psychologist and Cyber Expert Jordan Foster explains. ‘Parents need to be aware of risk factors that may put their child at increased vulnerability of suicide contagion. These factors include pre-existing challenges with mental health (anxiety, depression, acute stress), previous suicide attempts, if they are experiencing family difficulties, have recently lost a friend of family member, or if they are socially isolated. It is also important to note that boys are at greater risk of suicide than girls. I would urge parents to seriously consider the age and resilience level of their child before letting them watch 13 Reasons Why. Given the intensity of the subject matter, I would recommend viewing for teens 16 and older.’
Tips for Parents
- Watch 13 Reasons Why with your teenage children. It has a compelling story line and will have valuable insights for you. Use the shared experience to openly discuss the subject matter.
- Although it can be a challenging topic to talk about, it is important to discuss suicide in a calm and straightforward way, and provide your child with support and encouragement to discuss difficult thoughts or feelings if they are experiencing them.
- Avoid demonising mental health issues. Frame the conversation to be supportive and empathetic, as opposed to seeming fear-mongering. If your child feels like you will be angry at them for expressing their emotions, they will avoid speaking with you about it. We want to open the door for conversation by being understanding and approachable.
- During discussions, avoid discussing specific details of methods of suicide that were portrayed in the series. Instead, conversation should be focused on how to express and manage the emotions that your child may be experiencing after watching the show.
- Encourage seeking help. It is important to up-skill your child on what they can do if they ever find that they are feeling emotionally overwhelmed or don’t feel able to cope. Let them know that they can always talk to you if they are experiencing challenging thoughts, and let them know of other services like Headspace or Kids Helpline that they can seek support from.
Who to contact
If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local Headspace centre here or chat with them online. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
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