A counselor explains what the Netflix series got right, and how to use the show to talk to teens about mental health.
The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has received a great deal of attention since its release earlier this spring. The show centers on 17-year-old Hannah Baker, who has ended her life and left behind a series of cassette tapes explaining her decision. Each tape highlights a devastating issue, from isolation to sexual assault.
While many have praised 13 Reasons Why for its darker portrayal of high school, the series has also drawn criticism from the mental health community for its depiction of suicide. For starters, says Chicago-based psychologist Karla Ivankovich, PhD, the show fails to openly address the real reason Hannah took her life: untreated depression.
“As a clinician, it’s evident to me as I watch the show that [Hannah] had broken relationships, lacked self-confidence, and started losing interest in friends and activities she previously enjoyed,” Ivankovich explains. “Her once outgoing personality changed to sad, withdrawn, and tired. She felt worthless, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred, and lastly, she expressed no hope for her future.”
Blame for Hannah's suicide is heaped on her peers. But while Hannah's classmates may have contributed to, or exacerbated her symptoms of depression, untreated mental illness is what ultimately took her life, says Ivankovich.
Another major concern is the way 13 Reason Why sensationalizes suicide, "making Hannah more relevant in her death than in her life," Ivankovich says. "Many teens may be left with the perception that this is what the aftermath of suicide looks like. That you will get to air your grievances with a captive audience.”
But experts also point out that the series, produced by Selena Gomez, has brought a few important issues into the light—and can be a powerful conversation starter for parents and their teens.
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What 13 Reasons Why got right
There's no question the show does a good job conveying teenage culture, and how difficult it can be to navigate. By tackling serious issues like peer pressure, bullying, and sexual assault, it has resonated with many viewers who felt misunderstood, says Ivankovich. “The show also depicts teens in a manner that is egocentric," she adds. "This is not a criticism of the teens, but a reality of development.”
Ivankovich recommends that parents of teens use the series to open a dialogue with their kids. Ask your son or daughter what rings true to them. “Watch it yourself, watch it with your child, discuss it," she says. “Every single episode is a teachable moment."
You can also use 13 Reason Why to broach the difficult subject of depression and suicide—a conversation every parent should have with their kids. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among teenagers. While the series has unfortunately glamorized the act, it has also given us a jumping off point, says Ivankovich: "Where we take the discussion from here is up to us."
How to talk with teens, and help them cope
Start by asking your kids what they think about Hannah and her friends’ choices, says Ivankovich. See if any of the subjects strike a chord. “Many believe that opening up this discussion will lead kids to consider suicide as an option, but this is simply not true,” says Ivankovich. “Educating your child on the signs, symptoms, and treatment options for a person with depression or [someone] considering suicide can give your child elements of hope.”
And do you best to place value on mental health and hygiene, Ivankovich adds. Encourage teens to explore coping mechanisms and self-care activities—such as exercise, meditation, and hobbies—that can help them manage the stress in their day-to-day lives.
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“Our youth are at increased risk for suicide,” Ivankovich points out, citing an uptick in problems like bullying and social media abuse. “When combined with external circumstances that overwhelm an already at-risk population, we’re left with a group of kids who are less able to cope with the struggles of adolescence.”
Be on the lookout for symptoms of depression, she urges: “Be cognizant of changes in behavior that last more than a few days, and are departures from the norm. Ask questions, and don't accept silence if you feel something is off.”