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Dr. Danielle Forshee, Psy.D., ‘s Response to the Netflix Show “13 Reasons Why”

The show on Netflix titled ‘13 Reasons Why’ has caused quite a bit of controversy. This controversy is likely partly due to the unknown element associated with what it means for youngsters watching this show. Over the course of the past several weeks, I have been asked what my professional opinion is on this show. To this question, I provide my usual response of, “it depends”, and for good reason.

My answer is usually ‘it depends’ when it comes to most topics relating to human emotion, behavior and relationships because of how dynamic we are; there is never a catch-all answer to topics such as these. While I am considered an expert in these areas, you are the expert in your life and with your children.

My role is to provide you with knowledge that is based on current and relevant research. For parents who are concerned about their children watching the show ’13 Reasons Why’, the most important first-step is to be informed. This article will provide education to help guide you, so you are able to approach this issue from a research-based perspective. Once you are more informed, you can then take the information and determine to what degree it applies to your youngster and then what your course of action will be. Bottom line- not every child watching this show is at-risk for attempting suicide; however, some are.

Behind this Netflix series, the concerns most have pertain to suicide contagion, memorialization and sensationalism. These are three topics that are well-known in the field of suicidality, and there has been quite a bit of research on these topics within the past few decades.

According to the U.S Department of Health and Services, suicide contagion is when exposure to suicide within a family, within a group of friends or through the media may be associated with an increase in suicidal behaviors. Suicide contagion is essentially when one or more individuals engage in copy-cat suicide behaviors of what they heard through any form of communication (social medial included). An example of suicide contagion is what occurred in Monmouth County, NJ several years back where multiple youngsters were lost by the same suicide method in one small town. An abundance of research supports that suicide contagion is very prevalent among the at-risk population.

Sensationalism of suicide occurs when individuals or groups use information about the person lost to suicide, or method of suicide, and the focus is on broadcasting through the media (social media included). Memorialization is similar, and occurs when individuals or communities decorate lockers (as seen in the series), plant flowers/trees, create a shrine area to remember the deceased. Research indicates that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized and memorialized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.

There is much more you can read about regarding the above topics- I have only provided the foundation for you here. After arming yourself with additional knowledge, the next step is to understand whether your child may be vulnerable, or at-risk. Research reflects a correlation between social media usage and suicide risk with at-risk populations due to influence- specifically influence from social media for youngsters. Because this Netflix series appears to portray contagion, memorialization and sensationalism of suicide, it is imperative to know if your children watching this show may be vulnerable to this influence.

At the forefront of the series ‘13 Reasons Why’ is bullying. Those especially at-risk for suicide contagion are youngsters who are experiencing bullying. For many reasons, victims of bullying have little ability to find adaptive ways to deal with their bully, and without appropriate support and intervention they are substantially at risk. Victims of bullying are more susceptible to the belief that suicide may be ‘glamorous’; that people may see them in a positive light, to teach their bully(s) a lesson, or the idea of memorialization.

There are risk factors to look for while attempting to determine if your youngster may be vulnerable to influence. They include, but are not limited to: psychiatric history including history of suicide and non-suicidal self-injury; family history of suicide; history of childhood abuse/trauma; chronic medical illness, and sexuality and identity confusion. This list is not exhaustive, so please ensure that you educate yourself on all the documented risk factors for suicide. Providing this information on risk factors does not necessarily mean I am saying you should or should not permit your youngster to watch this series; it is for you to be more informed on what may make someone more vulnerable to influence and at risk of suicide compared to others. Know your child and allow yourself to be informed and influenced by the research.

With that said, it is just as important to take protective factors into consideration. Protective factors are skills, strengths or resources that reduce the likelihood of being vulnerable to suicide, and assist in coping effectively with stressful events. These include, but are not limited to: active & supportive family and friends; cultural, religious or spiritual values; opportunities to participate in school/community activities; resiliency; strong sense of self-worth; hobbies/interests; future oriented. You as a parent can be the most significant protective factor in your children’s lives.

Once you have informed yourself on what the research suggests, taking into consideration risk and protective factors of your children, arming yourself with knowledge, and learning some preventative resources available to you and your child in your area, you are ready to decide. If your decision is to permit your youngster to watch this series, make sure to have ongoing conversations with them to dispel any myths, assumptions or beliefs they may have regarding the topics of suicide discussed in this article. Ensure you are open to hearing and understanding your child’s perspective and arm them as you have armed yourself with knowledge. Providing your children with resources for prevention will help bolster protective factors for your child. Keep in mind that your child may know someone who has contemplated suicide and therefore, providing your youngster with resources is essential.

For additional information on suicide prevention, please visit the website for The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. If you are struggling with suicide, please know there is help available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.