13 ways to talk to your teenager about 13 Reasons Why

By Charmaine Yabsley

With the new series hitting our screens on Netflix today, experts say it’s important that parents open up a conversation with their teenagers about issues raised in the series.

Suicide and depression are sensitive topics. Throw in the parent/child relationship and it can be a difficult, almost impossible, topic to broach with your hormonally-ridden teen. But it’s a conversation and open dialogue we need to continue working on. The sobering fact is one in seven young people experience a mental health condition in any given year, and about one in 40 attempt suicide.[1]

After the airing of the first season of 13 Reasons Why in 2017, the National Institute of Mental Health reported a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among U.S. youth ages 10-17 in the month (April 2017) following the show’s release.[2]

Chair of the Australian Rotary Health (ARH) Research Committee Professor Jane Pirkis, agrees that parents need to be aware of the effect of such shows. Her current work as the Director of the Centre for Mental Health in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at Melbourne University involves research into the ways suicides portrayed in traditional and social media can lead to imitative acts.

“While 13 Reasons Why is fiction, the promotion of the show, and the dramas within, are also promoted through social media.” Pirkis says that her research and that of others around the world has found that news reports of suicides leads to spikes in suicides in the populations. This influence is thought to occur when people identify with the person described in the media, either because they view them as similar or, in the case of celebrities, because they revere them.

Here’s some ways to talk about the issues raised in 13 Reasons Why, or other times suicide may be in the news, or within their peer group.

1. Talk to your teenager

Make sure you keep channels of communication open with your child, even if your son or daughter isn’t actively keen to have a chat to you about issues such as suicide or bullying. While it’s generally agreed that the show has brought about awareness of bullying, cyberbullying and other issues including suicide experienced by today’s teens, there’s caution that the show may do more harm than good. Medical and mental health professionals in America reported teenagers listing their own 13 reasons why to kill themselves, and some families believed that the show triggered their children to attempt suicide, sometimes with fatal outcomes.[3]

2. Monitor their social media activity

Pirkis says: “We know from other studies that teenagers do discuss suicide online, and we need to try to make sure that they do this in a safe way and not one that might result in vulnerable teenagers thinking that suicide is an option for them. Knowing which channels your teen visits and post on will help ensure that they are using social media for supportive communication.

3. Go online

If you’re concerned about your child’s emotional and mental wellbeing, there are online resources which may help. The Chilled Plus Programdeveloped by researchers at the Macquarie University Centre for Emotional Health, is a cognitive behavioural treatment that teaches adolescents creative ways to manage their emotions and reach personal goals.

Founded by Dr Carolyn Schniering, who was awarded an ARH Mental Health Research Grant, this online intervention program enable teens to manage negative feelings, change unhelpful thinking, develop new behaviours and improve resilience. “The Chilled Plus program was effective in treating anxiety and depression in adolescents, and the improvements remained over time,” Dr Schniering says.

4. Learn mental health first aid

Dr Laura Hart, a research fellow at the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, is co-designer of Teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA), which teaches skills, coping strategies and information on emotional and mental health issues to high school-age students. “Students who receive teen mental health first aid are nine times more likely to ask a friend about suicidal thoughts in a supportive way,” says Dr Hart. “That’s a strategy we know from research is highly likely to prevent suicide.”

5. Discuss bullying

Create a safe space for your child to talk about any bullying issues they may have at school, or online. One tip is to talk about heavy subjects – such as feeling excluded or picked on – in the car. A non-eye contact conversation may be easier for your teenager to divulge their feelings.

6. Be aware of the contagious nature of suicide

Research suggests that exposure to a peer’s suicide can have a “contagious” effect—especially among 12- to 13-year-olds.[4]By watching the show with your teenager you’ll be more aware of what messages they’re currently being fed. Talk about the show afterwards –it may help your child to use the show’s plotline to give them a voice if they use someone else’s experience to express their emotions.

7. Encourage your child to talk to others

As mentioned, encourage your child to speak to you when they’re worried or concerned. If this just isn’t possible, suggest alternative people for your teen to have that talk with. They may feel happier talking to friends or someone at school.

8. Discuss options

13 Reasons Why highlights the alienation the main character feels from her peer group and the lack of support she receives. In real life, remind your teen of the many sources available to them, whether it’s family, friends, school counsellors, online, phone or face-to-face support.

9. Discuss fiction vs reality

Sure, our kids are a mature generation but they may not be able to distinguish fact from fiction. Remind your child that the show emphasises feelings of alienation and neglect for dramatic effect.

10. Face the reality as a parent

If you think that your child is having suicidal thoughts or is impressed by certain shows and messages, then take the time to watch and observe them as closely as possible. Remember the signs of depression: withdrawing from friends or family, eating or sleeping less or more, and/or lack of interest in activities. Seek the help you may need to approach this issue.

11. Don’t assume

Your child may not be watching the show at home, but that doesn’t mean that they’re NOT watching it on other devices. Do you have means to monitor your child’s streaming? It could be worth establishing this with the agreement of all members of your family.

12. Be aware of conversations

Even if your child doesn’t watch the show, there may be chatter about it online or at school. Familiarise yourself with the themes of the show so that you can be aware of what to watch out for – online, and in conversation within your child’s group of friends.

13. Don’t binge watch

Limit your child to one episode at a time. With such distressing and emotionally heavy topics your child may feel wiped out and emotionally drained if they watch back-to-back episodes.

Resources: National 24/7 crisis phone services include Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 or #chatsafe.

Note: Australian Rotary Health provides grants for research relating to the mental health of young Australians for up to three years per project with funds up to $70,000. There are currently 27 related programs funded by ARH at a total investment of $1,384,683. In total, they have invested over 40 million dollars in funding to date.

[1] https://australianrotaryhealth.org.au/spotlight-on-teen-suicides/

[2] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/release-13-reasons-why-associated-increase-youth-suicide-rates

[3] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/release-13-reasons-why-associated-increase-youth-suicide-rates

[4] https://www.cmaj.ca/content/185/10/870

/Public Release. This material comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length.