While the Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why” has received praise for addressing issues that teenagers face, such as sexual violence and bullying, some mental health professionals contend that the show glamorizes the idea of suicide and could lead teens to think that suicide is the only option to traumatic and painful experiences. Instead, suicide prevention advocates say, the series should have sent the message that there are other options to find help and healing.
The Washington Post reported of a rise of self-harming behavior among teenagers and children who watch the series. This is worrisome as the percentage of U.S. children and teenagers hospitalized over suicidal thoughts and actions doubled from 2008 to 2015. Around the world, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds.
Based on a 2007 novel, the Netflix series shows the story of a high school student who dies by suicide, but before taking her life, she leaves behind 13 tapes for people she said contributed to her death. (Warning: The series features scenes of sexual assault, cyberbullying, harassment and a graphic depiction of suicide.)
The series does not mention that 90 percent of all suicides are committed by people who experience diagnosable and treatable mental illnesses, which require professional help. Suicide prevention experts say that most suicidal individuals want to live; they are just unable to see alternatives to their problems. That is why suicide prevention is so important.
In a video about “13 Reasons Why,” Roy Petitfils, a licensed counselor in Louisiana, stressed to teenagers that “there is life after high school, life after a depressive episode, or after somebody does something horrific to you. … Trauma is real, but it does not have to be the end of the road.”
“If you are experiencing severe anxiety or depression and thoughts of suicide, please reach out to your pastor, priest, youth minister, your teacher, your parents,” Petitfils said. “And don’t stop at just one person. … Ask until you get the help you need.”
Some warning signs include severe depression, social withdrawal, comments about feeling hopeless or unbearable pain, increased alcohol or drug use, suicidal threats or sudden behavioral or mood changes.
Individuals need immediate assistance if they start saying goodbye to friends or giving away possessions, inflicting self-harm, suddenly changing moods from despair to calm, or planning to procure a firearm or prescription medication.
Never ignore the signs or keep a friend’s suicidal thoughts a secret. If you think a friend or loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts, help them; if you think they are in imminent danger, do not leave them alone, call 911 or your local suicide prevention hotline.
The National Association of School Psychologists stresses that talking to someone about suicide does not put ideas in his or her head, rather, discussing the subject openly creates an opportunity to offer help. Listening, talking and acting provide support and help to those who need it and can help to prevent suicide and save lives.
“I sit with teens every day who are so grateful that they asked for help for one of their friends, they asked for help for themselves or someone asked for help for them and they finally got the help that they need it,” Petitfils said.
LifeTeen, an international youth ministry, responding to the show, encouraged people who feel hopeless to remember that “there is hope and healing in tomorrow.”
“You become a hero when you trust that your life has worth and are brave enough to ask for help, even when you feel like it doesn’t,” said LifeTeen’s Leah Murphy. “Every human being is full of infinite worth and is loved by an infinite God who wants us all to experience the fullness of life.”
Suicide is never the solution. It is an irreversible decision about a temporary problem. With the support of others, feelings or situations that may seem impossible to deal with can be overcome.
It might be hard to see this through the pain and hurt, but you matter and your life is worth more than whatever situation you are struggling with now.
If you experience suicidal thoughts, contact a trusted adult or call the suicide prevention hotline immediately at 1-800-273-8255, or text “start” to 741741 for on-the-spot counseling 24/7.
Maria-Pia Negro Chin is bilingual associate editor at Maryknoll Magazine.