SAN DIEGO. May 9, 2017– Teenage suicide is an American tragedy, with an estimated 10 out of 100,000 teens determining to end their lives each year. According to the CDC, in 2013, 17 percent of U.S. students in grades 9-12 seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months.
Writer Jay Asher, in his novel “13 Reasons Why,” brings the tragedy of teenage suicide to the fore in a graphically written method, depicting the tragedy of a school girl named Hannah Baker who leaves behind a series of pre-suicide tapes for her classmates.
Each person who received the package of her suicide diary is numbered among those she
believed contributed to her tragic decision. Her instructions to them were specific: Starting with the first recipient of her tapes, teenager Clay Jensen, each recipient was instructed to listen to the entire 13 individual tapes then give to the next person mentioned until all 13 persons had listened to them.
Asher’s spellbinding novel became the subject for a motion picture that was to star actress Selena Gomez as Hannah. Discussions on the film began as early as 2011. However, for a variety of reasons, the film project was eventually shelved in favor of a projected TV series. The project was ultimately taken on by streaming video king, Netflix.
Netflix adapted the movie idea into its recently debuted series for its own version of “13 Reasons Why,” which is now available for via the subscription service. Gomez is still involved in the project, serving as series co-producer. But the role of Hannah was handed to 21 year-old actress Katherine Langford, a young Hollywood unknown hailing from Perth, Australia.
There is no denying the major impact “13 Reasons Why” is having on teenagers, parents, teachers and mental health professionals. The new series is catching fire in the U.S. and abroad, and it is estimated that the show has approximately 40,000 Twitter followers and 2.4 million likes on Facebook.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey wrote the adaptation for Netflix, and three mental health professionals were consulted during its production. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Yorkey said his mission was in part to present suicide as painful and horrific:
“Is it concerning to me that people find the show triggering….That’s absolutely concerning to me….We did a show that was honest and was unflinching….”
Dr. Helen Hsu, a clinical psychologist and one of the consultants during the production of the series, was quoted in an “Atlantic,” article on the series, explaining
“We had to balance the potential harm of showing it with the potential harm of not
showing it, and having it be mysterious or avoidant.”*
Interviewed by “Vanity Fair” for another article on the series, Hsu further noted
“We had a pretty long talk about the need to balance fear of contagion with not wanting it to be this mysterious, almost coy thing.”
In that same “Vanity Fair” article, one of the writers for the show, Nic Sheff, told writer Sophie Gilbert that he had attempted to end his own life, and believed in the honesty of the
production “…because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was
finally held up for me to see in all its horror….”
But controversy has also arisen with regard to the depiction of suicide in the series. Phyllis Aloni, clinical director for The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, told the Associated Press:
“Graphic details about suicide we know historically are not recommended…but it could be really unsafe and I think we need to be a little more responsible.”
When actress Selena Gomez talked to Associated Press however, she indicated that criticism of the show was anticipated, because
“It’s not an easy subject to talk about. But I’m very fortunate with how it’s doing, and I’m overwhelmed, you know, very proud of it.”
Published in “The Inc. Life,” Amy Morin, LCSW expressed her concern that “13 Reasons Why” was possibly romanticizing teen suicide while not addressing
the issues surrounding mental illness.
Morin cited a Columbia University study finding that teens between ages 15 and 19 are among the most susceptible to influences as a group with higher inclination to be overly influenced by portrayal of suicide.
The National Association of School Psychologists has cautioned that suicide is not a solution to problems, and that help is available for adolescents who are especially vulnerable to sensationalism and images.
Dr. Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of the New York City-based JED Foundation for the prevention of suicide among teens and young adults, was quoted in WebMD as saying “The problem is that I’m not sure that a 12-year old kid will really take this in as a cautionary tale….You can see young viewers identifying with her [Hannah, the character who committed suicide].”
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, adolescents
and young adults aged 15-24 had a suicide rate of 12.5 percent in 2015.
Though the suicide rates among adolescents are numbing and unfathomable to
most, “13 Reasons Why” has stimulated public conversation about suicide
across all sectors of American society.
It would be difficult to predict how many suicides would occur in the years ahead by virtue of watching “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix, or even by merely reading the novel.
Certainly, the show – which has just received an order for a second season – will continue to focus greater awareness and attention to the behaviors of those around us who might be depressed, alone, substance abusers, victims of violence, undergoing major life events, who express bizarre thoughts, talk or write about suicide and/or have a family history of mental illness.
For suicide counseling and help:
Health professionals note that it is imperative to reach out to a compromised individual and ask if they are considering suicide or need any help.
If they express prevailing thoughts of suicide, it is wise to take what such individuals have to say to heart and reach out immediately to a qualified mental health professional for help.
The following resources may be contacted for assistance:
- CDC: cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide; 1-800-CDC-INFO
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK; Crisis Text Line
text TALK 741-741
- TeenHelp: www.teenhelp.com
- World Health Organization:who.int/topics/suicide
What teens are saying about “13 Reasons Why”:
Here is what teenagers had to say about the subject of suicide and the impact of “13 Reasons Why,” for an interview with Seventeen Magazine:
“It’s reality. And the people that don’t like it are super clueless to
what high school and middle school are like.”
“I completely loved it. Everything in that show was true. That is exactly
how teens act…Depression and anxiety is a major thing.”
– Casey Lynn
“As someone who has lost their mom, uncle and cousin to suicide, I feel
like this show helps showcase how something ‘meaningless’ can affect
someone with mental illness…Suicide ideation and depression is something
that some people suffer from everyday. It’s a struggle. But it’s real.”
– Becca Blood
“I liked it, but it’s kind of too extreme. Children of a certain age
shouldn’t watch it without supervision…I do believe that this could make
younger kids believe (suicide is) a way out when it’s not.”
– Mikayla Chandler
Being aware of those we love, and paying close attention to them, could someday help to save their lives.
Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!
*Note: In psychology, “avoidant” is an adjective that relates to or denotes a personality type or behavior characterized by an avoidance of intimacy or social interaction.