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Netflix Series Raises Awareness, Concerns about Teen Suicide


Doctors Fear “13 Reasons Why” May Glamorize Suicide

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10 to 14 year olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control; second among those 15-34. While awareness about teen suicide has increased over the years, a new Netflix series,“13 Reasons Why,” is creating concern among parents, educators, and clinicians.

Based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, the video series chronicles the story of a high school student who takes her own life, but not before she creates 13 tapes – each featuring a different classmate who is in part responsible for her suicide. The series’ creator told The Hollywood Reporter, in a recent interview that he hoped the show “sparks conversation” about difficult subjects, including suicide.

And that, it has!

Raising Awareness & Concern

John Sargent, MD, Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center says he and his colleagues have had conversations about the series.  They are pleased teen distress is portrayed and the issue of suicide is being discussed rather than kept in the shadows.

“It’s something that people are often frightened to talk about,” he notes.

But, Dr. Sargent worries the drama, which is well-done and believable, may enhance a young person’s likelihood of attempting suicide.

“It [“13 Reasons Why”] is realistic.  It’s honest.  The problems are real,” he says, noting that the main character’s concerns could have been managed in ways other than taking her own life. “Media efforts concerning adolescent suicide should always avoid glorifying or romanticizing the individual and present resources for those who may need help.” 

He goes on to say, “The show suggests that other people are the cause of suicide.  That is a particularly problematic point of view because ultimately, the cause of suicide is an individual deciding to end his or her own life.”

Dr. Sargent says it’s critical for parents, educators and others to support teens who may be watching the show and who may have their own difficulties and conflicts. 

Advice for Parents

One issue for this show is that young people are able to download the series and watch several episodes at a time.  Dr. Sargent says the emotional impact of the show may be increased through watching several episodes.  He also worries that parents may not know when, where or how (portable device) the teen is watching the show. But, his advice is simple:  bring up the subject of watching the series and be willing to watch it with your teen.  Talk about the problems presented and how suicide is not a viable solution but in fact, problems can be solved by teens with adult support.  And, above all, understand that the emotions of teenagers are real, poignant and powerful, and need to be supported.

If someone thinks that a loved one is contemplating suicide, Dr. Sargent says don’t be afraid to ask and then seek mental health support or emergency care.  He says suicide is a shattering event for a family. 

“Let the child know that it would be absolutely devastating if that were to happen,” he says.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline offer help and hope to those in crisis.

Netflix Responds to Controversy

Netflix has responded to the concern raised by many about the show.  In a statement, Netflix said, “While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting an important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories.”  In addition to the disclaimers, Netflix has also added the URL – a global resource center that provides information about professional organizations that support help around the serious matters addressed in the series. 

A second season of “13 Reasons Why” is due out in 2018 and Dr. Sargent hopes it will be more about people learning and growing from this experience. 

“I would like to see it written in a way that makes people think hard about the topic of suicide,” he says.