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.