13 Rea­sons Why ‘a dan­ger’ to teens

Net­flix se­ries shows no op­tions to help ad­dress sui­ci­dal thoughts


At the Dou­glas In­sti­tute’s spe­cial­ized clinic for teenagers suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sive and sui­cide dis­or­ders, there is al­ready a 13 Rea­sons Why ef­fect.

And it is neg­a­tive, con­firm­ing fears raised by sui­cide preven­tion spe­cial­ists since the Amer­i­can Net­flix se­ries was re­leased at the end of March.

“At the clinic, we saw teens in treat­ment who had even more sui­ci­dal thoughts af­ter watch­ing the first episodes. The se­ries wors­ened their con­di­tion,” said Jo­hanne Re­naud, med­i­cal chief of the child psy­chi­a­try pro­gram at the Dou­glas Men­tal Health Univer­sity In­sti­tute in Mon­treal.

The 13 Rea­sons Why­series deals with the sui­cide of a teenager, Han­nah Baker, who leaves be­hind 13 au­dio tapes that “ex­plain” her ac­tions. This se­ries, pro­duced by Amer­i­can pop singer Se­lena Gomez, is now “a hot topic” among teens and young adults in Canada, the United States and Europe. (Warn­ing, this ar­ti­cle con­tains spoil­ers.)

“We can’t pre­tend like the se­ries doesn’t ex­ist. We also can’t ban teens from watch­ing be­cause that will have the op­po­site ef­fect — it’ll in­cite them to watch it — but cau­tion is needed. The risks of a con­ta­gion amongst teenagers who are al­ready suf­fer­ing are real,” Re­naud said.

The se­ries con­tains ex­plicit scenes of sex­ual as­sault. It also clearly shows how the teenager kills her­self.

“The se­ries wanted to show the risk fac­tors linked to sui­cide — like bul­ly­ing, trau­mas (sex­ual as­sault), poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween teens and adults — but it’s Han­nah’s tun­nel vi­sion. The tone is venge­ful, al­most like a car­i­ca­ture. I see a dan­ger,” said Re­naud, who watched the 13 episodes.

‘Long list of fail­ures’ From the first episode, viewers are told that no one can make a pos­i­tive im­pact on the life of a young per­son who strug­gles with sui­ci­dal thoughts, since the worst has al­ready hap­pened, Re­naud said.

“The big prob­lem with this se­ries is that it’s a long se­ries of fail­ures. The only adult who the teen fi­nally turns to for help screws up roy­ally,” said Jérôme Gau­dreault, di­rec­tor of the Que­bec As­so­ci­a­tion of Sui­cide Preven­tion.

Sui­cide is shown as the only op­tion for Han­nah Baker, though sui­cide isn’t an op­tion, in­sists Gau­dreault, who said he is also “very wor­ried” about the im­pact this se­ries could have on dis­tressed teens.

Real Labelle, sci­en­tific di­rec­tor at the Cen­ter for Re­search and In­ter­ven­tion on Sui­cide and Eu­thana­sia at the Univer­sity of Que­bec in Mon­treal, also con­sid­ers the se­ries “dan­ger­ous.”

“It is sci­en­tif­i­cally proven that there’s a rip­ple ef­fect when we show sui­cide in an ex­plicit man­ner in the me­dia. It’s even worse if we glo­rify this ges­ture,” Labelle said.

Men­tal health, a ma­jor ab­sence Sui­cide is a com­plex phe­nom­e­non, preven­tion work­ers say. It’s “tempt­ing” to try to find rea­sons that ex­plain it — such as a rape or bul­ly­ing — but it’s never that sim­ple, ex­perts say.

“Con­trary to what is put for­ward by this se­ries, there isn’t a cause-and-ef­fect link be­tween bul­ly­ing and sui­cide, or rape and sui­cide. Th­ese are fac­tors that can ag­gra­vate a per­son’s dis­tress, but in the large ma­jor­ity of cases there will al­ways be a men­tal-health prob­lem present,” Gau­dreault said. “Un­for­tu­nately, men­tal health is com­pletely miss­ing in this se­ries.”

All the teens are talk­ing Af­ter re­al­iz­ing that this was the sub­ject of dis­cus­sion among young peo­ple in Que­bec, many schools reached out to the sui­cide preven­tion as­so­ci­a­tion for ad­vice.

The se­ries should not be used as a sui­cide preven­tion tool, Gau­dreault said. He rec­om­mended that schools avoid or­ga­niz­ing screen­ings of the se­ries or even dis­cussing it in large groups.

The as­so­ci­a­tion par­tic­i­pated in an “emer­gency” we­bi­nar last week, or­ga­nized by an Amer­i­can preven­tion as­so­ci­a­tion that re­ported at least two cases of sui­cide and sev­eral sui­cide at­tempts re­lated to the se­ries in the United States.

Schools and par­ents should pay at­ten­tion to dis­cus­sions among youth about this se­ries.

“If they raise the is­sue, we need to em­pha­size that this is fic­tion and that adults are al­lies, and that schools can sup­port them, re­mind them of the names of coun­sel­lors at the schools, of help­ful re­sources and guide them to those re­sources,” Gau­dreault said.

Even if it would make for a worse TV se­ries, the best way to pre­vent sui­cide among ado­les­cents is to pro­mote good men­tal health, to talk with them about sleep, bal­anc­ing a so­cial life and stud­ies, hav­ing good re­la­tion­ships with friends and fam­i­lies, Re­naud said.

Lived re­al­i­ties Even though 13 Rea­sons Why has been widely crit­i­cized, cer­tain parts of the show are re­al­is­tic, said Her­tel Huard, of Tel-Je­unes, a youth emer­gency hot­line in Que­bec. In this se­ries, teenagers and their par­ents live in par­al­lel worlds. Han­nah Baker’s par­ents were un­aware of their daugh­ter’s suf­fer­ing.

“We get lots of calls from teens who think about sui­cide, but who don’t want to talk about it with their par­ents,” Huard said. “They don’t want to be a bother. Like Han­nah in the se­ries, they de­velop mis­con­cep­tions that their par­ents would be bet­ter off with­out them.”

Even though the story is “ro­man­ti­cized” and that the is­sues faced by the char­ac­ters are “con­densed,” Huard finds it be­liev­able that char­ac­ters are “caught up in their se­crets” and al­ways “watch­ing their backs” to make sure those se­crets aren’t re­vealed.


Any men­tal-health is­sues Han­nah (Kather­ine Lang­ford, left) faces in the Net­flix se­ries 13 Rea­sons Why are never men­tioned.


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